Since we have awards for everything, there must be a trophy for recycling buildings, and it has to be awarded to Seattle, the epicenter of the renewable. Fifty-three years after its inauguration as a temporary structure — the Washington State Pavilion for the 1962 World’s Fair — KeyArena the past weekend showed it was still capable of putting on hootenannies. Or hoopenannies.
For the first time in 11 years, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament came to Seattle. It drew a combined 44,262 for two sessions Friday and one Sunday, which were virtual sellouts. Eight teams and their fans filled up hotel rooms and restaurants in the slow part of the tourist calendar and had a good time, especially the folks from Spokane and the Gonzaga diaspora.
“We could have sold more tickets,” said Ralph Morton, director of the Seattle Sports Commission, which partnered with the University of Washington, the host institution, to stage the event. “There was pent-up demand for March Madness.”
He said tickets for the initial public sale in October were gone quickly, long before the identities of the participants were known. Once Selection Sunday sent eight teams to Seattle, each school had a minimum of 200 tickets it had to buy, plus an option to buy more. Judging by the noise and colors, Zags fans soaked up the extras.
The building, always revered for its basketball sightlines, had some small, desperately needed upgrades, such as replacing an embarrassingly bad wi-fi system with something that worked nearly all the time. The UW staff helping stage the event were aces.
KeyArena general manager Edie Burke was pleased with the outcome, although she owned up to a staffing “hiccup” Friday that left some fans “frustrated, rightly so,” over tasks undone that were fixed by Sunday.
As to whether a return of the NCAA tourney will happen, no one knows. The NCAA never discloses why it passes over some sites and gravitates to others. But a return won’t happen until at least 2019, because the bid cycle for the next three years is already over.
As much polish as was applied, there remains some functional inadequacies that can’t be resolved with small investments. Concourses are comparatively narrow; leg room in seats is still cramped; rest rooms and concessions for sellouts still have long lines.
The Key remains primarily a concert venue, but the single-bay loading dock means that the biggest shows (and biggest moneymakers) must go elsewhere. Outside, the wretched street parking in Lower Queen Anne will only get worse as population density increases.
Meanwhile, in Portland, the Moda Center, opened as the Rose Garden in 1995, same year as the remodeled Key, has more than 19,000 seats for basketball and an ample supply of leg room, rest rooms and concessions. If that is Seattle’s competitor for Northwest regional sports venues, there’s little contest, at least in terms of arena specs.
This year’s event prompted a small discovery: Basketball capacity was 15,000, not the 17,000 and change in the NBA days that ended in 2008.
“It’s about a thousand less than the NBA level,” Burke said. Then the NCAA configuration took out the first four rows of courtside seats, as well as an upper section, to accommodate media from eight cities, plus room for two band spaces on the floor. Throw in improvements mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and what was the NBA’s smallest arena at the time of the Oklahoma City banditry has shrunk further.
The NCAA gives each hosting organization a three-inch-thick volume of requirements for staging the events, as well as hotel and transportation logistics. A review of Seattle’s performance won’t be done for awhile.
Meantime, the commission, along with UW and potentially Seattle University, will keep pitching for March Madness as well as lesser-profile NCAA championships.
“We definitely intend to bid for future events,” Burke said. As Morton put it, “Once you do one, you get in line for another.”
But the competition to host these clean, low-impact, tourist-rich events grows annually. And the Key keeps aging and shrinking.
We all know that a new arena has been proposed for Sodo, but whether it survives the remaining hurdles is not knowable. Even though alternate arena sites by different developers are rumored for Bellevue and Tukwila, they face similar chores that Chris Hansen has endured since he began buying Sodo property in — gasp! — 2011.
Meanwhile, the Key now has time to make a little trophy case in the lobby to celebrate its championship recycling. It’s how we roll lately in Seattle.
Great food, great drink, high humor and actual facts! Please join Art Thiel and Mike Gastineau for a happy-hour Sports Salon on hoops at World Trade Center Seattle on the Seattle waterfront across from Pier 66. 5-7 p.m. Tuesday. Bring your questions, rumors, joy and anguish to discuss Gonzaga, the NCAA tournament, Huskies’ and Redhawks’ futures, as well as the latest on the arena project and the possibilities for NBA/NHL. https://www.sportspressnw.com/2200115/2015/join-us-for-drinks-food-chat-about-seattle-hoops