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Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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May 5, 2008 6:57 PM

Spokane's Olympic ace-in-the hole? Enthusiasm

Posted by Ron Judd

The opponents were bigger and better-known. But the way Toby Steward and Barb Beddor see it, their hometown, Spokane, had an ace-in-the-hole when it came to luring the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and Olympic Trials: A perfect track record.

Twice before, skating events organized by Steward and Beddor's Star USA had been lured to the Inland Empire. And each time, participants and sponsors went away feeling flush loved -- and financially flush.

Spokane set attendance records when it hosted Skate America, a major, second-tier skating event, in 2002. It set attendance records again when it hosted the U.S. Championships in 2007. The total sales of 154,000 obliterated the former mark, set in Los Angeles in 2002, by 30,000.

It was a remarkable achievement, given that those championships came a year after an Olympics, when interest in figure skating typically wanes, and that they were held in a place as far off the national radar as Spokane.

It's the sort of locally generated enthusiasm that's difficult for national bodies like U.S. Figure Skating to ignore. Impossible, in this case.

"We felt the ultimate trump card was that attendance record," an elated Beddor said by phone this evening. "And to be able to say with confidence, 'Yeah, we're going to beat that number again.'"

Of that, they have little doubt. Nor do they doubt that the impact from the event has the potential, at least, to balloon at an even greater rate. The '07 championships brought an economic impact estimated at $30 million to the Lilac City. And since then, the event has been dramatically expanded. It now stretches for 10 days over two weekends. Senior men's finals and pairs will take place the first weekend; senior women's finals and ice-dance finals will come on the second. (Official reason: Training schedules for the coming Olympics. More likely reason: NBC.)

Most of that weekend competition will be broadcast live from the 10,500-seat Spokane Arena on NBC, which will be promoting it to death to bolster its upcoming coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Stakes are high for the peacock network, which, recall, paid an unseemly amount of money for Olympic rights through 2012, only to see the Winter Games in Turin get squashed in the ratings contest by the likes of "Dancing With the Stars.")

That's the other factor that turns this event from a major coup to a game-changer for Spokane: The competition dates are Jan. 14-24, 2010. The end of Spokane's skating championships comes only 18 days before the start of the Vancouver Games. The focus of the Olympic world, not just the national skating community, will be on Spokane.

"Olympic fever is a real, tangible item," Beddor says. "It will take over. There's no question we are going to see the benefit of that. Obviously throughout the Pacific Northwest. Certainly in Washington state."

Their company has organized events in the past that would have sold well on their own, but mushroomed because of a timing and proximity brush with the Olympics. A Team USA versus China women's hockey match in Boise, just before the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, for example, drew a standing-room only crowd. Idaho officials estimated that the match, in conjunction with a torch relay passing and other national teams training in the area, netted as much as $100 million in economic benefit.

Beddor and Stewart believe the same phenomenon is possible in Washington leading up to the Vancouver Games.

Tickets are likely to be in high demand. A survey of previous ticket buyers from the '07 event indicated that 97 percent of fans said they'd come back to Spokane to watch figure skating, an almost unbelievable number, says Steward, a former national weightlifting champion who met Beddor, his wife, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. They moved to Spokane and launched their event promotion business in 1990.

"We're so proud of the Spokane community," Beddor says. "When they get behind a project, there's no stopping them."

But they both stressed that the event has statewide impact. A sizable chunk of its fan base is based on the west side of the Cascades. And a large portion of the event's sponsors are Seattle-based, as well.

Steward and Beddor have long sought to bring a skating World Championships to Spokane. They lost out on a bid for the '09 World Championships, which went to Los Angeles, although that bid was submitted before Spokane had a chance to show its ablilities with the '07 Nationals.

With that focus on the Worlds, they at one point had nearly decided not to bid on the 2010 Nationals.

"But one day we said, you know what, we don't want to be sitting around four years from now and saying shoulda woulda coulda, and letting a 100-year opportunity (the close proximity of an Olympics) slip through our fingers."

They were confident in their bid, even knowing that San Jose, Portland and Providence, R.I., had their own well-backed efforts. They sensed some sentiment among U.S. Figure Skating board members to host the event on the East Coast. So they weren't sure Spokane would get the call until it actually got the call this afternoon.

"It's figure skating," Beddor said with a chuckle. "They're all about the drama, you know."

Washington state suddenly is set to receive more than its fair share of it. Everett recently landed the 2008 Skate America competition for October at Comcast Arena.

Since you asked: Ticket sales begin at 10 a.m. May 31. See details on the post below, or see the event Web site.

And since you also asked: Yes, there is a hometown favorite. Well, honorary hometown, anyway. Skater Ashley Wagner, who finished third at the 2008 U.S. Nationals, is considered a strong contender for the Vancouver Olympic squad. As a military kid, she's grown up all over the world and is now based on the East Coast. But she has spent many a summer with her grandparents in Kitsap County, where her grandfather, Mike James, was a longtime ranger at Scenic Beach State Park near Seabeck.

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www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
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www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.