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City, arena gear up for women's NCAA slate

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 4, 2011, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, April 14, 2011, at 10:25 a.m.

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Wichita is an avid college basketball city, and that fervor peaks in March for the NCAA Tournament.

This March, Ron Holt and Sheryl Wohlford would like you to make room for the women's tournament in your frenzy of bracket contests and buzzer-beaters.

Intrust Bank Arena will hold first- and second-round games on March 20 and 22, hosted by Wichita State University's athletic department. Holt and Wohlford, the co-chairs of the community marketing committee, want fans to buy in as a must-see Wichita event, not just basketball games.

"We want people to think about it as a wonderful event that Wichita is hosting," said Holt, assistant manager for Sedgwick County.

"I suspect there will be a team or two that will get placed here and will say, 'Wichita?' That's before they come. When they head back home, we want them saying they had a great time."

That means creating atmosphere. The goal is to sell around 7,000 tickets, filling the lower bowl in the 15,000-seat arena. All-session passes, for three games, are $39. Single-game tickets go on sale after the bracket is announced March 14.

As of Tuesday, 2,558 tickets were sold, including 400 reserved for the four schools. The NCAA reserves 100 tickets for each team that will play here.

Nationally, the women's NCAA Tournament isn't an easy sell. Last season's first-round games at neutral sites averaged 3,749 fans. Attendance shrunk to 2,856 in the second round.

This will be Intrust Bank Arena's first NCAA event and the county's first NCAA basketball tournament since the men's first and second rounds played in the Kansas Coliseum in 1994. Organizers want Intrust Bank Arena to make a good first impression on the NCAA.

"We want the NCAA to say that Wichita, WSU, the arena, the community really hosted a great event," Holt said. "And we become much larger on their radar screen on other NCAA events, other women's tournaments, volleyball, men's tournaments, whatever it is."

In the next week or so, Wichitans will see an increase in marketing and publicity for the games, especially downtown and in restaurants. The campaign will feature posters, table tents and coasters, and advertising using downtown trash cans.

"Even if we don't have our team playing in it, it is still something that we want our community to attend," Wohlford said.

Their job gets easier once the teams are announced. In a dream scenario, the Wichita State women will win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and an automatic spot to play at home. Any wish list also has Kansas State University, which beat No. 5 Texas A&M on Wednesday and is now projected to be in the 64-team field.

In ESPN.com's latest projection, Oklahoma, Duquesne, Michigan State and East Tennessee State are placed in Wichita.

"We are anticipating a Big 12 team, or someone close in proximity," Wohlford said. "Those teams travel well."

For the teams that make it here, organizers want them to find a community that treats the tournament like a big deal.

The Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau is training restaurant and hotel staff to get in the spirit. If somebody in a college T-shirt asks for directions to the arena or a recommendation, Go Wichita president John Rolfe wants employees to be ready.

Once teams are assigned to Wichita, he hopes to get hotel staff wearing their school's T-shirts. Organizers want to welcome each team when they arrive, either at their hotel for teams that arrive by bus or at Mid-Continent Airport. Teams will stay at the Hilton Wichita Airport, the Hyatt Regency Wichita and the Marriott. NCAA officials will stay at the Holiday Inn near Towne East.

"It's always great when visitors come to our town... and our service-related industry people know what's going on," Rolfe said. "It's all about creating a hospitable atmosphere. We want people saying Wichita did a fantastic job."

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com.

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