Tournaments flood downtown with fans and money: 'Sports in Spokane are incredible to us through the month of March'

Feb. 29—Players from 32 teams around Washington are competing in the State B basketball tournament, bringing with them family members and friends — but most importantly for downtown businesses, economic activity.

The tournament kicks off a string of sporting events planned in March that will attract tens of thousands to the Lilac City.

Just this weekend, high school basketball at the Arena will bring an estimated 27,000 spectators across four days, and high school track at the Podium is bringing more than 2,000, according to Paul Christiansen, director of sports for the Spokane Public Facilities District.

Christiansen said the STCU West Coast Indoor Track & Field Championships this weekend is the largest indoor high school meet on the West Coast.

The Public Facilities District owns and operates a handful of venues that will generate millions of sports tourism dollars in the coming weeks.

Spokane Sports, an economic development organization, is responsible for booking and managing many events in town and also handles marketing for the facilities organization.

In March alone, sports will attract more than 16,000 athletes, 525 coaches and officials, 37,000 spectators and more than 27,000 hotel room night bookings, according to Spokane Sports.

This comes after the hospitality industry hits a dry spell every year during January and February. Dan Zimmerer, president of the hotel division for Ruby Hospitality, said recent years have been busier due to the 15 track meets held annually at the Podium, which opened in 2021, during slow months.

He said this weekend kicks off an eventful tourism season.

"Sports in Spokane are incredible to us through the month of March," Zimmerer said.

Ruby Hospitality, a Spokane property management company, owns a collection of hotels, including the Ruby River, Montvale and Steam Plant hotels.

Though track events garner much attention due to the sparsity of indoor tracks, Zimmerer said hotels will be even busier next weekend for the Washington State Middle School Basketball Championships.

"The two-bedded rooms at all the hotels in downtown and the surrounding area are fully occupied," he said.

And downtown hotels aren't the only ones experiencing increased bookings.

The tournament's primary location is the nine courts at the Podium but will include other facilities around the city.

Now in its 11th year, the tournament has expanded to two weekends: next weekend for girls teams and the weekend after for boys.

"It's an amazing event," Zimmerer said. "It went from selling out hotels in one weekend to selling out in two."

But the single most impactful sporting event Spokane will host is the Pacific Northwest Qualifier, also known simply as "PNQ." The volleyball tournament will welcome some 800 teams, according to Christiansen.

Zimmerman said its economic impact is immense.

"It's proven that PNQ is the largest-room night contributor in Spokane all year," he said. "There's a lot of three- or four-night stays, and it spans from (Eastern Washington University), downtown to the Hub in Liberty Lake, so it fills hotels in every part of the city. It's incredible."

Beginning the weekend of March 23, the tournament spans three consecutive weekends.

Running at the same time is the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament.

Spokane is on a rotating list of cities that host men's and women's games for the respective basketball tournaments.

Because of the clash, Christiansen speculated that Spokane might have to pull their name from the list for women's games.

"We won't be able to hold that anymore," he said. "We're limited by hotel rooms, and we're going to favor PNQ because it's been here forever."

Plus, the volleyball qualifier generates much more revenue for the city.

Visit Spokane, a marketing nonprofit for the city, estimated the economic impact, meaning the amount of money spent by tourists, using a third party calculator for the upcoming March events.

The first and second rounds of the upcoming NCAA men's basketball tournament held in Spokane will generate around $2.5 million, according to Visit Spokane.

That number falls behind the middle school basketball tournament, which will generate around $3.5 million.

But the volleyball qualifier is estimated to generate $44 million.

Though sports tourism dollars are spread throughout surrounding areas, the economic impact is especially felt downtown, said Emilie Cameron, president and CEO of Downtown Spokane Partnership.

"The way downtown is structured day in and day out is for people to work, live and play. This is the play," Cameron said. "I can't underscore the importance of the events happening."

Cameron classifies the effect the events have on downtown in a dichotomy — quantitative impacts and qualitative impacts. Quantitative is the millions of dollars visitors spend on gas, retail, hotel rooms, etc. And qualitative is the vibrancy tourism brings as more people fill streets of downtown and the surrounding areas.

"It supports the feeling of a positive place," she said. "Larger-scale events bring people downtown for their first time. We're always trying to cultivate that positive feeling so they come back, whether it be for shopping, eating or for future events."

Cameron said sporting events have helped downtown foot traffic not only meet pre-pandemic levels but exceed it. To her, it shows visitors are developing a long-term love affair with the Lilac City.

"We know dollars and hearts are engaged with downtown," she said. "That's the goal."