By Kyle Rowland
When ground was broken for Intrust Bank Arena in 2007, city and county leaders had their sights set on cracking the NCAA tournament rotation. More than a decade later, that vision has come to fruition.
And it won’t be a one-time deal. The arena’s already been awarded first- and second-round games for 2021.
“When it was built, the landscape for bidding was very difficult,” said Mike Ross, an instructor in the sport management department at Wichita State, who’s directing media operations this week. “Now you've got so many communities that are bidding. It makes it a lot tougher. The fact that we’ve been awarded 2021 as well is a testament to this community, the folks that run this building, and Wichita State for their willingness to do what’s needed to bring this to town.”
The excitement throughout the city is palpable. Tickets sold out within minutes for all three sessions — two on Thursday, one on Saturday — when they went on sale in November. The demand was obvious at Wednesday’s practices, which were free and open to the public. The main event was home-state and top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks.
“We had a little over 13,000 people for practice,” Ross said. “That’s insane.”
Some restaurants began planning for this week way back in 2014 when it was announced that Wichita would host games, according to the Wichita Eagle. Downtown eateries are hosting watch parties and will have extended hours. Hotel business has not been as brisk as expected, partially because of Kansas fans opting to drive in and drive out.
Jason Van Sickle, President of the Downtown Wichita Neighborhood Association, said the tournament could have a $10 million economic impact.
“My perception of Wichita as a basketball city has been very, very high going way back,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “This has been an unbelievable basketball town over time. I think that Kansas as a whole when you have three Division I schools and all three have done as well as they've done, I think it's made a pretty good name for basketball in our state. Wichita's got a terrific name nationally basketball-wise.”
The local organizing committee started meeting three years ago. In the last year, the meetings became monthly and then bi-weekly after the New Year. The NCAA and CBS both made site visits to inspect the venue and decide logistical matters inside the arena.
No details have been spared, all the way down to painting the walls blue and gray with March Madness logos; endless hallways of carpet, an NCAA tournament staple; the location of the media workroom; and the best vantage points for CBS’ cameras.
Wichita last hosted NCAA tournament games at the old Kansas Coliseum in 1994 (Michigan was also here for that). The biggest name in town is the Wichita State men’s basketball team. Intrust Bank Arena’s main tenants are an ECHL team and an indoor football league franchise. NBA preseason games, the Professional Bull Riders, Inc., and MMA events have come to town. Paul McCartney, Aerosmith, and seemingly every country music artist has performed at the arena, too.
But Wichita hasn’t seen a spectacle quite like the modern-day NCAA tournament.
“I’ve asked some local folks who have been involved in this type of stuff going back years and years and years,” Ross said, “and what they've told me is this is quite possibly the biggest sporting event in Wichita history.”