NCAA tournament returns to Seattle, bringing millions of dollars with it

Mar 18, 2015, 6:41 PM | Updated: Mar 19, 2015, 7:26 am
The NCAA flag flies atop Seattle’s Westin Hotel as Seattle welcomes the return of the NCAA ba...
The NCAA flag flies atop Seattle's Westin Hotel as Seattle welcomes the return of the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time in a decade. (Alan Alabastro photo)
(Alan Alabastro photo)

Seattle will be overrun this week by Anteaters, Panthers, Hawkeyes and Cardinals, not to mention Wildcats, Bison, Cowboys, and Bulldogs.

The invasion is welcome as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament returns to KeyArena for the first time in a decade, bringing teams and their fans from all over the country.

They’re expected to spend nearly $8 million on hotels, restaurants, rental cars and other things, giving the local economy a significant shot in the arm at what’s traditionally a slower time for the tourism industry, according to Visit Seattle, the private, nonprofit tourism agency that led the effort to help bring the NCAA tournament back.

Related: Who could beat undefeated Kentucky? Dick Vitale says Zags

“The business coming in is a great lift for a city that’s going to run maybe 80 percent on average this week. This will help push hotel occupancies and spending,” said Tom Norwalk, President and CEO of Visit Seattle.

More than 7,000 overnight visitors are expected to attend the games Friday and Sunday, generating 11,600 hotel room nights, according to Norwalk. The teams will encamp at different hotels, with officials staying at another hotel and the Westin Seattle serving as the championship headquarters.

“It’s exciting, a lot of people worked really hard to make this happen,” said Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission. “The games are totally sold out and if I had 5,000 more tickets, I could sell those too.”

The tournament is officially being hosted by the University of Washington, but it took an aggressive lobbying effort by Visit Washington, the SSC and other groups to lure the tournament back to town.

They [the NCAA] have to have great confidence that you and your host institution are going to do a great job at hosting the event,” Morton said. “It’s working with the venue to make sure they have all their ducks in a row. It’s the hotels, it’s the airport arrivals. There are so many aspects.”

More than 14,000 tickets have been sold for the games Friday and Sunday at KeyArena, roughly half to people from outside the area, according to the SSC. Having Gonzaga in the field is a huge boost, Norwalk said.

“The fan base travels. They’re excited. Knocking on wood without jinxing anything, they’re hopefully going to play Friday and Sunday, so fans will stay and spend,” Norwalk said.

Some economists have questioned the real economic impact of sporting events like the NCAA tournament. As Geoff Baker reported in The Seattle Times, cynics have a theory known as “displacement” in which the hotel rooms would have been occupied anyway and other groups would have come to town and spent similar money.

But Morton vehemently disputes that notion.

“Go ask Tom Douglas and all the other restaurants how they feel,” Morton said. “March is usually slower in Seattle. This week we’re hopping thanks to the tournament.”

The SSC and Visit Seattle hope a successful tournament helps land more major sporting events in the future, whether it’s NCAA basketball regionals, international soccer games, a major sailing championship or even a Super Bowl. Morton, Norwalk, and a number of other city and business leaders have traveled to the past two Super Bowls to lobby on the city’s behalf.

“We’re working on the world’s largest events. We’re looking at what we’re strong at here and saying how do we take advantage of that,” Morton said.

Here’s the lineup of games for the NCAA second and third round at KeyArena:

Friday, March 20

(5) Northern Iowa vs. (12) Wyoming at 10:40 a.m. PT

(4) Louisville vs. (13) UC Irvine at 1:10 p.m. PT

(7) Iowa vs. (10) Davidson at 4:20 p.m. PT

(2) Gonzaga vs. (15) North Dakota State at 6:50 p.m. PT

Sunday, March 22

Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2 at TBD time p.m.

Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4 at TBD time p.m.

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NCAA tournament returns to Seattle, bringing millions of dollars with it