by Howie Stalwick

Spokane sports fans have finally found something that gets them even more riled up than Gonzaga basketball -- Gonzaga basketball ticket prices.

Since season ticket prices for the school's new arena were announced, the Bulldogs' image as lovable under-Dogs, fighting the good fight against the nation's best while playing in their tiny gym at the little Catholic school by the Spokane River, has taken a bit of a beating on the local scene.

Although prices technically will rise only $25 to $200, that's misleading. Mandatory add-on costs will cause season ticket prices to skyrocket from the current $175 (plus varied booster club fees, depending on seat location) to anywhere from $400 to a whopping $3,700 per year. Gonzaga will continue to provide 500 free tickets at and near courtside for GU's historically wild student crowd.

School officials admit they've run into plenty of opposition since announcing the prices, although the three most expensive of the five seating sections have sold out. GU officials said the new prices are necessary to help pay for the privately financed, $23 million arena that is expected to be ready for the 2004-05 season. Season ticket prices include $100 to $1,000 annually for building funds for the first five years.

"That's a big dime," GU public relations spokesman Dale Goodwin said, "but it's a big social activity. You're seeing people and friends you like. It's fun for the kids. It's exciting entertainment." To back up his words, Goodwin said he'll continue to pass on the two comp tickets available to faculty and staff and will keep buying four season tickets for his family. That adds up to $2,400 a year -- and that's for the second-cheapest of the five seating sections, the one in front of the top seven rows of the 6,000-seat arena.

Robin Barnhart, who played for the Gonzaga women's basketball team, bought season tickets with her husband shortly after graduating from GU in 1988. Barnhart said she believes the total cost was $300. The Barnharts purchased two more season tickets a couple years later, but they won't be buying any at the new building, where four seats in the same area would cost $4,000 a year -- $20,000 for the mandatory five-year commitment. The Barnharts presently pay $1,700.

"When you look at what other schools are doing, I'm sure it's comprehensible. But it priced us out, no doubt," reports Barnhart, a high school teacher with two children (husband Duane is a radio executive and on-air personality). "I'm just frustrated," Barnhart says, "that there wasn't some other way we could raise the money without such a tremendous jump for the people who've been there a long time."

Three other Washington schools play NCAA Division I men's basketball. In comparison, for season tickets, the University of Washington charges $329 or $297 ($250 or $100 extra will get you better seats in the $329 section). Washington State charges $149 for any seat ($239 for a family of four). Eastern Washington charges $90, $75 or $50.

The other three Washington schools play football; Gonzaga does not. The three state-funded institutions have far more students than Gonzaga and larger arenas, though Eastern Washington (5,000 seats) will have a smaller arena than Gonzaga when the new building replaces the 4,000-seat Martin Centre.

Gonzaga administrators approved construction of the new arena, which will be built just east of the Martin Centre on the current baseball field -- but only if 80 percent of the cost can be raised before construction begins. GU officials said they are confident they'll reach their goal in time for a March groundbreaking.

Since Gonzaga's recent rise to national prominence in basketball, Barnhart said, "Things have really changed. Some of it is for the better. Certainly the publicity. Gonzaga never used to be about the money, but it has become, in my opinion, about money. Maybe it has to happen. But it's frustrating.

"Part of me is saddened. I guess I'm a little idealistic. I didn't think Gonzaga would be swept up by it."

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