St. Louis becoming a mecca for sports

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- That St. Louis is being considered as a permanent site for the NCAA wrestling championships is the latest indication of the city's growing reputation as a sports mecca.

Hardly a year goes by without a major sports event scheduled. This year, the docket is especially packed.

Oklahoma State wrapped up its second straight wrestling title on Saturday. Six days later, NCAA men's basketball regional opponents hit the court at the Edward Jones Dome with crowds of up to 45,000 expected if fans from Kansas, Georgia Tech and UAB can make up for the surprise absence of No. 1 seed Kentucky.

The event is projected to pump $13 million into the local economy. Then comes the U.S. Olympic women's marathon trials on April 3, the swimming and diving trials and the Olympic torch relay in June, and the U.S. Senior Open in late July.

In 2005, the city will play host to the men's Final Four and a third wrestling championships in six years. The U.S. Figure Skating championships will be held in 2006 and a highlight of 2007 is the NCAA Frozen Four college hockey championships. In 2008 there will be more Olympic Trials of sports yet to be determined, and the NCAA Women's Final Four returns for the second time since 2000 in 2009.

That's not counting the annual Missouri Valley Conference tournament, NCAA men's first and second rounds in either 2007 or '08 and perhaps a return of the Missouri-Illinois football rivalry in the future.

St. Louis will complete the decade with seven NCAA championships. The only city with more is Omaha, Neb., which hosts the College World Series every year.

The more, the merrier for the city's four-pronged organizing committee. The Valley and Saint Louis University spearhead basketball bids, the Sports Commission chases Olympic events, and the Convention and Visitors Commission helps out with accommodations.

The team effort is working. St. Louis is the first city to be awarded the wrestling tournament in consecutive years -- also hosting the meet next March -- and Sports Commission president Frank Viverito will be seeking more when bids come out for 2008-11.

"We'll invite the NCAA to bring the event here as often as they will," Viverito said. "We'd love to have it every year, and it was huge for them to award them to us back-to-back."

Curt Blake of Rider, the chairman of the NCAA wrestling committee, likes the central location. So do the coaches, who endorsed a neutral big-city site over campus sites as has been done in the past.

"The committee will take a close look at it," Blake said. "Right now, everything is open. I can't say enough about the sports commission and the job they did."

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