Madison, WI, home of the University of Wisconsin, wears the Sports-Illustrated bestowed crown, strongly disputed by several cities like Ann Arbor, MI, and Columbus, OH, as “Best Football Town in America.” There’s little dispute about Eugene, OR’s, claim to the title, ‘Track Town USA.” So comes now my sense that Spokane deserves the title. “Sports Town USA.”
But before the guffaws commence from those in the Puget Sound area where all the pro sports teams, as well as the collegiate Huskies, have large and super-loyal fan bases and tend to look down their noses at Spokane, or from California’s major cities with a similar nose problem, let me offer the points of my argument.Stephanie Curran CEO of Spokane Public Facilities District
The idea actually came to mind as I watched high school and college runners from across the country at a track event at the city’s gleaming new indoor 200-meter track that boasts the nation’s newest and the West’s only hydraulic-banked running track, housed in the new Podium. That means the ends of the track are hydraulically elevated for sprint events and lowered for other events.
There should be little argument if Spokane claimed the title of the nation’s basketball capital. After all, it’s not only home to a Gonzaga Bulldog basketball team that dominates collegiate ranks, it also hosts on one weekend each year the 3-on-3 basketball tournament called Hoopfest which is the largest event of its kind in the world. Or as the event launched in 1989 touts itself, “the largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament on earth,” attracting a quarter-million fans, 450 courts spanning 45 city blocks, and drawing 6,700 teams.
Then of course, for the world of runners, there’s the Lilac Bloomsday Run, the 12 kilometers, 7.4-mile run that on May 1 will mark its 45th anniversary this year, celebrating the 1977 launch of the event by Spokane resident Don Kardong, who had finished fourth in the marathon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. An amusing note is that Kardong had moved to Spokane only two years before the Olympics and was basically unknown in Spokane until his name came on television and Spokanites could watch and learn about him during and after the marathon.
An indication of Spokane’s ability to attract talent to its events, before Hoopfest began to attract global attention, is evidenced by the launch of Bloomsday. Kardong had hoped for 500 participants for the inaugural run and got nearly triple that. The second edition had over 5,000 and the third, in 1979, attracted 10,000 runners, with 50,000 spectators lining the streets.
As Stephanie Curran, CEO of the Spokane Public Facilities District that manages the new Podium and several other facilities, told me in an email: “I believe we are the model of how cities can grow and develop their public facilities,” pointing out that the PFD also manages a convention center, performing arts center, arena and new stadium under construction. “We literally manage one of every venue type. We are blazing a trail.’
Among the facilities under the oversight of the PFD will soon be the new downtown stadium to replace 70-plus-year-old Albi Stadium, located in northwest Spokane, which has primarily been the home of high school football over those seven decades.Marty Dickinson chair of Spokane Public Facilities District
The Spokane Public Schools board, after three years of controversy that included an advisory vote in 2018 in which nearly 70 percent of the vote favored building a new stadium on the site of Albi Stadium, voted last April to approve construction of the $31 million, 5,000-seat stadium at the downtown site. Support, including financial concessions, from the downtown-business community’s Downtown Spokane Partnership as well as the PFD, tipped the scales in favor of the downtown location.
Curran, in praise of the stadium decision, said: “The School Board ultimately demonstrated bold leadership and made the best decision for the community. While not everyone agrees, I am confident in the end they will realize the opportunities the downtown location will provide will be amazing for our students and our community.”
The new stadium, being built across the street from the Podium, won’t just be the home to high school football, but to two new soccer teams, men’s and women’s teams in the United Soccer League, which touts itself as “the largest and fastest-growing professional soccer organization in North America.” Landing the two soccer teams was part of the downtown location payoff.
Spokane Sports CEO Eric Sawyer explained, of both the Podium and the new downtown stadium that opens next year: "we sat down a number of years ago to create a roadmap for sports in our region and a key conclusion was we needed a multipurpose sports complex to attract visitors in winter months. And realizing that Albi had to be replaced, there was a conversation on where to build a new one.”
“So we thought maybe downtown and make it something more than a high school football stadium so the final outcome of both the Podium and the new stadium was getting all the stars aligned,” explained Sawyer, whose non-profit marketing organization has a mission to recruit and develop sporting events.
He added that with those stars now aligned, he can look to retire next year when he turns 65.
The $54 million Podium, which sits high on a 15-foot basalt outcropping and overlooks downtown Spokane and is connected to Riverfront Park, opened in December and takes its next high-visibility step this weekend when it hosts USA Track & Field Indoor Championships that serves as the qualifying meet for the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, March 11-13.
Curran reflected in her email to me on the past that helped bring about the present and future.
“If you look at the history of Spokane and how Expo ’74 almost 50 years ago changed the trajectory of Spokane, I fully believe what we are doing in Spokane now, especially on the North Bank where the Podium, Arena, and Downtown Stadium are located, we are the next Expo (the World’s Fair for which Spokane became the smallest city ever to host the global event),” Curran said. “We are changing the trajectory of Spokane through Sports and Entertainment and driving money into our economy at the exact time it is needed post Pandemic.”
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, discussing the emerging challenge of rising home prices and national attention that are part of that trajectory, said “Spokane has been discovered.” And the PFD And Spokane Sports are seeking to do their parts in providing things for those in other parts of the country to discover.
If the line “a river runs through it” were ever applied to an urban area, it would nowhere have more import than Spokane. The entire downtown area of the city abuts the Spokane River, which not only has the largest urban waterfall in the nation there near downtown but attracts activities and recreation to the shore and thus to adjacent downtown. So the downtown core of Spokane is never going to be diminished by future events, as is being feared for Seattle and San Francisco as the remote-work and blended-work phenomenon takes hold. And additions like the stadium and the Podium only ensure the future of downtown as well as the city surrounding it.
With nearby ski resorts and numerous lakes in both Eastern Washington and adjacent Northern Idaho, outdoor sports and activities offer as much newcomer lure for Spokane as organized sports events. But reputations are built on organized sports.
Marty Dickinson, chair of the PFD, praised sports investment as “the great connector in our community.” Dickinson, who was executive vice president of Spokane-based Sterling Bank and its successor Umpqua Bank said sports “serves as a wonderful convenor of diversity, unifies us and inspires many and along with that it is an economic driver.”
Referring to the Podium, Dickinson, who now also chairs the Washington State University Board of Regents, said “being able to provide a public space of this quality and share it with so many while also continuing to drive economic vitality into our region is something that everyone is very proud of.”Spokane Sports CEO Eric Sawyer
Because it’s an entity partly funded with taxpayer dollars, how they handle that responsibility is clearly a part of the PFD's success. And as Paul Read, publisher of the Spokane Journal of Business and PFD vice-chair, told me in a phone conversation: “I’ve always been impressed with their stewardship of the public dollars.”
While the leadership and vision of the PFD and Spokane Sports have written a success story for a city that is attracting attention as a place to live for those tired of the pace and costs of Seattle and California cities, it’s important for the city to recognize those whose belief in the place came years ago.
I’m thinking of Bobby Brett, one of baseball’s most famous brother acts, who guided the Brett brothers to buy the Spokane Indians, now part of the High-A West baseball league, 36 years ago and in 1990 added the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League to their Brett Sports lineup.
But back to the Sports Town USA premise, I tossed out at the top of this column. Interestingly the PFD CEO Curran told me in her email, not yet being aware of this column, she had thought about “Sports Town USA” and suggested it to the county commissioners. And she seemed enthused that they opted for the name Sports County USA.
It's an understandable decision for the elected commissioners since the city of Spokane Valley, with its 106,000 population, almost half of Spokane's 229,000, might feel somehow slighted and thus upset.
That would seem a remote concern. And sadly, "Track County USA," would seem less likely to gain much traction for the city’s image if it’s promoted around the country. Hopefully, the marketing people find a way to bring “Sports Town USA” to fruition.
The city merits that title and in fact, it will add to the growing attraction it has evidenced with potential new residents, including those from Seattle and the West Side, as well as California.