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Sports & Recreation

Boise Businesses Miss Out On Relocated March Madness Basketball Tournament

AP Photo

Thursday was supposed to be the first of four basketball-packed days at Boise State’s Extra Mile Arena, but the NCAA in November announced it would host both men’s and women’s 2021 basketball tournaments at individual metropolitan areas due to the pandemic. The men play in Indianapolis, the women in San Antonio.

That move cost Boise businesses millions of dollars in lost revenue, but hotels and restaurants are far from empty.

Boise’s convention and visitors bureau estimates the thousands who attended the 2018 NCAA tournament games in Boise spent more than $3.5 million at local hotels, restaurants and retailers. Aimee Tyler, general manager at downtown Boise’s Residence Inn, said the event typically means more than 8,000 booked hotel rooms.

“That $1.4 million that the NCAA brings into the core of Boise — just in hotel rooms — is a huge loss for us,” she said.

About 13% of that hotel revenue would end up in state and local tax coffers.

Tyler says business is picking up, and her hotel has been able to re-book rooms previously reserved for the tournament with other visitors.

“We are experiencing groups and travel that we hadn't seen a year ago,” Tyler said, specifically mentioning medical and pharmaceutical travelers and government-related trips.

“The business that we have instead of the NCAA is taking us to be almost at capacity,” she said. “Probably 85-90% of where we would have been last year we are [already at] this year.”

Tyler noted her data show occupancy at the Residence Inn ahead of other hotels in the area.

Visitors spend an average of around $125 per night, per hotel room, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Tim Campbell owns Boise’s Taphouse, where the tournament is on every television no matter where the games are played.

“March Madness is one of the busiest times of the year for us; we’re always full,” he said.

There can be a bump from people arriving a day before, or a larger late-night crowd with the tournament in town Campbell added, but so many people come down to watch games on television regardless, the NCAA presence isn’t a big deal to his bottom line.

That’s not the case at every restaurant.

“We've usually catered to at least a couple of teams, either in-house, their rooms or in-flight on their return trip,” wrote John Berryhill, owner of Bacon restaurant in downtown Boise. His business also gets a boost from visiting fans.

While he’s sympathetic to the reasons behind this year’s change, Berryhill wrote that the excitement and dollars an event like the NCAA Tournament brings to all Boise businesses is missed.

Boise State takes a financial hit too, but only about $240,000, said Senior Associate Athletic Director Bob Carney. He leads the planning process and served as tournament coordinator when the NCAA came to Boise State in 2018.

“It's an opportunity to drive some revenue downtown, [to] really get to show off Boise and Boise State,” Carney said. “I think that's that's kind of the bigger picture for us.”

Some of the tournament revenue is dispersed out of athletics to compensate other university departments for their supporting roles in hosting the event.

Once tournament week hits, it’s all-hands on deck, Carney said. Months of planning turn into 16-hour days (or longer) and the number of athletic, arena and other university staff working the tournament is doubled with volunteers. Security, concessions and other gameday positions also require more staff than even most big Boise State home games.

“It's a fun event, [and] it takes a lot of work,” said Carney. “But when it's done, it really is a feeling of accomplishment to be able to run that large of an event, do it well, and hopefully have people leave here and just be excited about their experience.”

In 2018, the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated more than 1,400 jobs are supported when the tournament comes to town.

Bringing it to Boise is a very competitive bidding process, even if there isn’t much revenue at the end of the line for host institutions. Schools may monetize parking and concessions, Carney said, but the NCAA pays for tournament expenses and shares some ticket revenue. That suggests the association would favor larger arenas with more potential ticket revenue in areas that can offer lower expenses.

“The big thing is just securing hotels that meet all the minimum requirements,” Carney said, noting Boise’s growth has helped meet those needs. “But it’s security costs, it’s food costs, it’s police escorts,” he continued. “There's a lot of factors from a cost standpoint that tie into it.”

Credit Tim Campbell/Taphouse
Fans watch at the Taphouse in Boise, pre-pandemic. The sports bar has reduced its capacity to 50% to help slow the spread of COVID-19

Back at the Taphouse, Campbell said the Big Sky Basketball Tournament in Boise last week helped boost revenue to its highest point in nine months — and that was with very few fans in attendance. His staff remains smaller than before the pandemic, and he’s operating within the city and health department guidelines at 50% capacity.

“Our revenue won’t be cut in half because, even during March Madness last year, we might have three people at a six-top (table for six),” Campbell explains.

That’s not happening this year. He might have to turn some folks away, but, “I'm maximizing the seats so much more.”

Carney says Boise’s bid to host again between 2023 and 2026 was not selected, and those denials don’t come with specifics. The school plans to bid again for future host opportunities — but the NCAA may avoid Idaho all together if the state’s trans-athlete legislation, HB500 which passed last year but is currently held up in court — becomes law.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

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