When Wichita was awarded the bid to host the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, the goal for tournament director Brad Pittman was to “raise the curtains” at Intrust Bank Arena.
The mantra was in reference to selling enough tickets to fill up the lower bowl, which seats around 6,500 people, in order for the curtains that the arena uses to hide the empty seats in the upper levels to be raised.
“Our goal all along was to force the arena to raise the curtains because we sold enough tickets,” Pittman said. “That’s what we’ve been pushing for and that’s what we pulled off. (Saturday) showcased what Wichita is all about. We’re a basketball town and we support basketball.”
Tournament officials are proud of the turnout for the Sweet 16 games hosted by Wichita State on Saturday, as the official attendance was clocked at 8,540 fans. That stacks up favorably against the other three regional host sites, as Wichita was less than 300 fans away from top-selling Greensboro, North Carolina (8,811) and sold more than Bridgeport, Connecticut (8,502) and Spokane, Washington (7,142).
The feat becomes even more impressive when considering that the fan bases of the top three seeds in Wichita were all at least a 10-hour drive away and closest fan base was South Dakota, whose fans still had to make a six-hour drive. Given that context, Wichita officials were ecstatic the Air Capital came so close to out-selling Greensboro with North Carolina and South Carolina playing and out-drawing Bridgeport even with Connecticut playing.
Dating back to the 2016 NCAA women’s tournament, Wichita’s draw of 8,540 fans for the Sweet 16 games ranks No. 7 out of 20 regionals — by far the top host site for a regional with no team within 200 miles. For perspective, Wichita out-sold Lexington when host Kentucky played in a 2016 regional and major cities like Chicago (2019 Notre Dame) and Dallas (2016 Baylor) even with top-tier programs playing.
And when compared against host cities that did not have a local fan base to draw from, Wichita crushed the competition: nearly doubling up Sioux Falls, South Dakota (4,610 in 2016), Stockton, California (4,500 in 2017) and Kansas City (4,280 in 2018) and nearly tripling up Oklahoma City (3,499 in 2017) and Lexington (3,148 in 2017).
“Honestly, this blew out my expectations,” Pittman said. “I was hoping for just 6,000 each night and I would have been happy. It’s a testament to the programs that were here and their fan bases, but honestly it also speaks to how special hosting a regional is. There’s a lot on the line here. Come Monday night, a spot in the Final Four is on the line and a chance to fulfill a dream.”
It turned out that the smallest school, South Dakota, brought by the largest and loudest crowd. Thousands of Coyote fans, whether they drove from Vermillion or local fans who adopted the underdog No. 10 seed, packed the stands and made Saturday’s night game between South Dakota and Michigan a lively affair.
Even though a large portion of Saturday’s crowd will be headed back home to South Dakota after Michigan put an end to the Coyotes’ Cinderella run in a 52-49 win, tournament officials are hopeful that Wichita-area fans will still be excited to watch high -level basketball comes Monday night.
A trip to the Final Four will be on the line when No. 1 seed Louisville plays No. 3 seed Michigan at 8 pm with the TV broadcast on ESPN. Tickets are still available for the Wichita Elite Eight game starting at $25 for adults and $15 for youth and seniors.
“Not only did we put 8,500 people in the stands, they were rowdy and we had two incredible games that came down to the wire,” said Mike Ross, the tournament’s media coordinator. “It’s really exciting because you can tell that Wichita adopted some of these teams, especially South Dakota. I think Wichita likes an underdog. Hopefully they’ll come back because Monday night is going to be a show.”
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico was impressed by the Wichita crowd, even though it was pro-South Dakota.
“The Wichita environment has just been incredible,” Barnes Arico told The Eagle. “To see that many fans come out here today and support women’s basketball was amazing. It’s been an incredible couple of days here and it was such a great atmosphere. I’m looking forward to Monday.”
While there are many other factors that go into hosting NCAA events, Wichita believes the strong attendance turnout on Saturday could help the city secure future NCAA bids in the coming years.
“This is what March is all about,” Pittman said. “This is what basketball is all about. If you were here (on Saturday), you enjoyed a real treat. If you weren’t, I would encourage you to come out on Monday.”
This story was originally published March 28, 2022 6:00 AM.