Taylor Swift graced its stage twice, Elton John and Billy Joel once. Garth Brooks did six shows in four days.
And the Shockers stop by once a year. All examples of big, sell-out events for our still-sparkling downtown arena.
But for many, Intrust Bank Arena won’t be broken in until around 11:15 Thursday morning, when a referee tosses a basketball into the air and players from two NCAA Tournament teams try to tip it to teammates.
Our arena, more than 13 years after voter approval, will have arrived.
There were plenty of reasons for voting for a 2 1/2-year, 1-cent sales tax back in 2004. Park City’s Kansas Coliseum was aging and frankly unfit for an arena representing a city of Wichita’s size. Besides, it was “out there,” doing nothing for downtown Wichita.
Voters narrowly (51.5 percent) approved the sales tax, envisioning an arena that would boost economic development in the city’s core.
More importantly, they envisioned big events, and the NCAA Tournament was a big sell.
But Wichita’s bid for a regional in 2009 failed. Same in 2012.
So in 2013, when the NCAA came to Wichita for follow-up interviews after the Shockers’ Final Four run — coach Gregg Marshall suggested they tour Intrust.
A year later, Wichita’s first bid was accepted. The NCAA liked enough of what it saw to award the city a 2021 bid, too, even with no NCAA games played here yet.
Next week has been Brad Pittman’s focus for more than a year. WSU’s director of facilities is the tournament manager, and he’ll find out the eight teams coming to Wichita when we do, 5 p.m. Sunday on TBS.
While Pittman’s focus is on the teams and what they do inside the arena, groups such as Visit Wichita and the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission have organized fan-friendly activities outside the arena for visitors and Wichitans alike. Success for an event of this size can’t come without effort from those groups and city and county government.
If you’re a marginal hoops fan or can’t tell a Jayhawk from a Wildcat, here are tips we should all remember next week:
WE WILL ROOT for good weather, because there’s nothing like an outdoor fan fest in sleet and wind. The forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday (arrival days) is in the 50s, then warming to the 70s the next three days. With winds that our visitors won’t soon forget!
WE WILL ROOT for the little guys. Two teams you may not have heard of, and don’t know where they’re located, will be here as lower seeds. Take up their causes, because upsets by low seeds against mighty powers make the tournament unique.
WE WILL ROOT for the Kansas Jayhawks. This may be a non-starter for some fans, and that’s OK. We’re all-in for our state schools. KU will be undoubtedly placed in Wichita because of its proximity and its likely No. 1 seed, and Jayhawk fans will take over Old Town and other hot spots.
WE WILL ROOT for friends, new and old. Members of the Big 12, American Athletic and Missouri Valley conferences should get extra love if they play here. Former KU coach Roy Williams is projected by some bracket analysts to bring his North Carolina team here, too.
WE WILL ROOT for everything to go well. The two lasting memories of Wichita’s last regional, in 1994 at the Coliseum, were terrific basketball and a barnyard smell in the media area that made Wichita the butt of on-air jokes by TV reporters from Detroit and Boston covering their local teams. Here’s hoping for no shot-clock malfunctions, electrical outages or fan interference.
Though all eight first-weekend sites look the same on TV — “Wichita” and “Intrust Bank Arena” are the only differences on our NCAA-issued court — it’s still reason to celebrate the city’s re-birth on the NCAA Tournament scene. Whether you watch all six games from your couch or an arena seat, take pride in the preparation by the local organizing group — and 2004 voters — that has made Wichita a player again.