Calling a foul on Shootout air fare

News that a $2 million state allocation to the University of Alaska Anchorage would be used in part to cover air fare for basketball fans flying in to Anchorage from other parts of the state has many crying foul -- or at least looking for a traveling call.

The pitch was made in the name of economic development. Fans who spend $127 on a ticket package to the Great Alaska Shootout, which attracts NCAA Division I teams from around the country during the Thanksgiving weekend, would get a free ticket on a regional air carrier. It is hoped that some 1,500 people would take advantage of the offer, and generate a $2 million economic impact, booking hotel rooms, eating at restaurants and doing some shopping in the big city.

It's a nice idea, but we have to ask, is this really the best use of state funding?

From a strictly sporting perspective, the Shootout needs a boost. The NCAA changed the rules regarding early season tournament participation a few years back, and since then, it's been harder for the Shootout to attract top tier teams. Big name schools are playing in tournaments that offer bigger appearance fees in warmer places -- and national television audiences. Last year, UAA hosted Murray State, Dartmouth, San Francisco, Central Michigan, New Mexico State, UC Irvine and Southern Mississippi. Anybody have any of those teams in a March Madness bracket? The Shootout is teetering on the brink of NCAA irrelevancy. If the long-standing event were to fold, it is estimated to be a $5 million blow to the Anchorage economy.

And even though last year's tournament featured competitive and compelling games, they were played in front of a sparse crowd in the Sullivan Arena.

Which brings us back to the $2 million allocation from the Alaska Legislature. Certainly, hosting a prestigious tournament is a boon to the university -- a state-funded institution -- so it makes sense for the Legislature to get in the game. And UAA athletic director Steve Cobb has acknowledged that any time a large chunk of money is spent on anything, there's going to be criticism.

But it seems to us that covering air fare is the wrong call. If the goal is to attract higher profile teams, then spend the money on appearance fees -- and look for a national television outlet (small crowds don't seem to bother teams when they're playing in front of cameras). And if the goal is to get more butts in seats, then how about discounting the game tickets, or giving them away for free? (Attracting the high profile teams might help in that department, too.) When it comes to big time college sports, you have to spend money to make money, and those are costs directly related to putting on a tournament.

Subsidizing travel for spectators shouldn't be one of those costs. If air carriers want to sponsor the tournament or offer special fan fares, that's great. Same goes for hotels and restaurants. Those are decisions they should be making to promote their business -- and should be left to those businesses.

We've grown all too accustomed in this state to looking to the government to subsidize private enterprise. The Great Alaska Shootout has been a nice economic driver for Alaska's largest city, in addition to being a great opportunity for Alaskans to see some top-notch collegiate hoops. And sure, the Shootout no longer is on a level playing field when it comes to attracting teams. If some extra funding can help improve the tournament, we're all for it.

But we'd argue against paying to supply the fan base. It's not sustainable. If organizers are able to restore some of the event's lustre, the fans will come of their own accord -- and spend their own money, not the state's.

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