Can Tri-Cities be a boon to Cougar sports?

IN ISOLATION, THEY warrant casual notice. Taken together, they point to a concerted effort by Washington State's athletic department to tap into what could be a large source of new football and basketball season ticketholders. In the last two months, the folks at WSU have taken three actions that signal a trend of geographical note.

First they unveiled the Cougars' new football uniforms in Pasco. Then basketball coach Ken Bone announced he would be taking his team to Kennewick this winter to play Portland State. Baseball coach Donnie Marbut followed suit, with the pledge that his club would play a game in the Tri-Cities late next spring.

Ask the average Joe what comes to mind when hearing the name "Tri-Cities" and the response figures to be Hanford, hydroplanes, outstanding prep sports teams ... or maybe even a blank stare.

Ask Casey Fox and he'll say gold.

Well, maybe not gold, but potentially silver.

Fox is WSU's director of sports marketing. And the recent convergence of crimson activity along the mid-section of the Columbia River is no coincidence, he tells

The Tri-Cities -- Richland, Pasco, Kennewick and surrounding environs -- boast a collective population of 235,000 that is just more than two hours by car from Pullman. Neighboring Walla Walla County, which is even closer to Pullman, has a population of some 55,000.

Between them, the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla areas are home to 9,704 WSU graduates.

Yet those communities accounted for only 823 of the 13,300 football season tickets WSU sold last season, and 144 of the 4,521 basketball season tickets.

Where do local
WSU grads live?
1. Greater Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Olympia:

2. Greater Portland/Vancouver:

3. Greater Spokane/CdA:

4. Greater Tri-Cities/Walla Walla:

5. Yakima Valley:

6. Wenatchee and North Central Washington:

7. Whatcom & Skagit counties:

8. Lewiston Valley:

9. Greater Moses Lake/Ephrata:

10. Adams & Lincoln counties:

Source: WSU Foundation
"We clearly have room to grow our support coming out of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick," says Fox. "And all the benchmarks tell us we can make it happen. It's a relatively easy drive to Pullman, the area is full of Cougars, and the entire community is passionate about sports -- be it the high school teams or their professional teams. The bottom line is that the Tri-Cities represent an attractive market for Cougar athletics.

"We are stepping up our marketing efforts there and making sure we're communicating consistently," he adds. "The unveiling of the football uniforms and the upcoming basketball and baseball games we're scheduling in the Tri-Cities are all part of the effort to raise our visibility in Benton and Franklin counties."

SPOKANE AND THE WSU student body have always been the backbone of attendance at Cougar sporting events. And the Puget Sound area has been an enticing, though elusive, source of ticket sales given the drive time -- as is Portland/Vancouver.

WSU can go a long way toward filling up Martin Stadium and the Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum through some of the smaller population centers that are nearby, says Fox. The Tri-Cities is just the most visible example.

Indeed, the Lewiston Valley -- just 40 miles from Pullman -- has a population of about 40,000 yet accounted for just 332 football season tickets last season.

Whitman County, with a permanent (non-student) population of around 25,000, accounted for 2,945 season tickets last season.

In fact, the opportunity for increasing support for the Cougs at ground zero is illustrated by this head-turning statistic: Of the 400-plus businesses that are members of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, just a little more than 100 support WSU athletics with season football tickets and/or annual student-athlete scholarship donations.

"Over the years I think people have tended to look at Spokane and Seattle-Tacoma as the key to selling out Martin Stadium on a consistent basis," Fox says. "They're vitally important of course, but if you look out from Pullman in a radius of 100 or maybe 150 miles I think you'll find we can move the needle in a very significant way."

The importance of putting more fans in the stands extends well beyond game day, Fox notes. If WSU sold 5,000 more football season tickets, the additional revenue would total about $1.2 million -- $850,000 coming from ticket sales and $400,000 from priority seat fees.

"A lot of Cougs were upset about the proposed move of the Apple Cup to Qwest Field for a few years -- a move that would have generated $10 million for WSU," says Glenn Osterhout, a member of the King County Cougar Club. "The way to keep that idea on the shelf is very simple: Buy season tickets. The leverage it gives the school, is simply immense."

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