By Melinda Schnyder - Photography by Aaron Patton
Has anyone else noticed that when you’re outside of Kansas, wearing a Wichita State Shockers T-shirt attracts more attention than it used to get?
By more attention, I mean any attention. As frequent travelers and with access to WSU season tickets for more than two decades, my husband and I have worn Shocker gear around the country. It largely went unnoticed, or at least uncommented on, until the past five years during which the Shocker program made a surprising Final Four run in 2013, followed by an undefeated regular season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2014, then a Sweet Sixteen season in 2015.
Now, strangers stop us to talk about the current Shockers, former players now in the NBA or head coach Gregg Marshall. It’s safe to say that most people who are interested in college basketball know about Wichita State University, though it’s also safe to say few know of or have visited the city.
City boosters hope that will change this March as Wichita hosts the first and second rounds of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Eight teams, to be announced on March 11, will play a total of six games in Wichita – four on Thursday, March 15, and two on Saturday, March 17. The games will be nationally televised and athletes and fans from across the country will come to Wichita.
The last time the men’s tournament came to Wichita was 1994, when it was played at the Kansas Coliseum, so this is the first time to welcome men’s college basketball athletes and fans from around the country to downtown Wichita and the 15,000-seat Intrust Bank Arena.
“Everyone has heard of the Shockers and knows Wichita State is a great basketball program but not all of them know about the city behind the team,” said Jason Gregory, executive vice president for Downtown Wichita, an affiliate of the Greater Wichita Partnership. “This is a great opportunity to put the city on the national stage and to showcase all the great things we have.”
A basketball-centric community – fueled by the Shockers’ success – was one of the elements that likely lured the NCAA, along with a downtown arena that opened in 2010 and a new airport terminal in 2015.
Visit Wichita estimates $10 million in direct spending across the city will occur that weekend, from hotel rooms to restaurant and bar tabs to entrance fees at area attractions.
The convention and visitors bureau was one of six local entities that collaborated on the winning bid to compete against the other communities in the region that regularly host this tournament: Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Tulsa and Omaha. Others involved in securing Wichita as a host city were the City of Wichita, Intrust Bank Arena, Sedgwick County, the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission and Wichita State University. Because WSU is considered the host school, the Shockers are not permitted to play at the site where the institution is hosting.
For event and sports industry professionals, hosting NCAA men’s basketball tournament games is a career highlight. It’ll also be an important achievement on the resume of the 8-year-old arena, which was built with the support of Sedgwick County taxpayers, many of who lent their support with the hope that it would help Wichita land this prized event.
Already, being able to say the city is hosting this event has opened doors for attracting other events to Wichita, said Moji Rosson, vice president of Sales for Visit Wichita.
“It’s a very recognizable event, so when you say that you’re hosting the NCAA basketball tournament it puts you on another level of competition,” she said. “We’ve entered the big leagues and we’re ready to play ball.”
In 2018 alone, Wichita is hosting four significant sporting events. In addition to the NCAA event, 2,500 athletes and fans came to Wichita for the Midwestern and Pacific Coast Synchronized Skating Sectional Championships in January, the USA Waterski and the American Water Ski Association National Championships arrive in August and the United States Bowling Congress brings its U.S. Open in October.
“For all four events, visitors to Wichita will stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and visit our attractions, creating a real economic boost for our community,” said Susie Santo, Visit Wichita president and CEO. “In addition to economic impact, sports play a critical role in our community – contributing to our quality of place, attracting and retaining talent, building pride, showcasing Wichita on a national stage and elevating community perceptions. In addition, having the opportunity to host four major sporting events in Wichita in one year only solidifies that we are a tremendous sports city capable of hosting sporting events of all varieties and magnitudes.”
A.J. Boleski, general manager of the Intrust Bank Arena, said his team loves this event because it exceeds the four walls of the arena.
“With a concert, people come in, see the show and they leave,” he said. “This is so much bigger than just the venue. The venue is where the games happen but it’s about the community as a whole welcoming all of the folks into town and the teams and athletes.”
As examples, he points to the number of events planned March 15-17 for the areas surrounding the arena, including the official Fan Fest, and improvements made to the downtown infrastructure as well as upgrades inside the arena, including a renovated north entrance, free Wi-Fi and charging stations.
“The NCAA event might be the catalyst for these projects but everybody in the community will benefit from those for many years to come,” he said. “When we come out of this tournament in March, we’ll also be able to turn around and start planning on hosting it again in 2021. We’re very fortunate as a city and a community to know it’s already coming back in three years.”