Thanksgiving. It’s not a holiday that gets much thought while we’re celebrating the Summer Solstice, but many folks like to use the break for a myriad of reasons out side of stuffing themselves silly with turkey. Some like to visit family. Some plan shopping trips to take advantage of day-after sales. Others take advantage of the buffet of sports offered up by various leagues that weekend.
This coming Turkey Day, however, you can do all of the above, with a state-subsidized trip to Anchorage. An otherwise nondescript line-item on the 2011 capital budget titled “Shootout Partnership” led to a program by the University of Alaska Anchorage to provide free airfare to and from the municipality for the first 1,500 people to by all-session passes to the Great Alaska Shootout. Tickets to the once-proud but now struggling college basketball tournament go for $127 for all 16 men’s and women’s games, which meant folks with any desire to visit Anchorage during Thanksgiving could now do so for far less than the $350 such a round-trip flight from Juneau (one of the 18 “rural” cities covered by the giveaway) would cost.
Alaskans met this idea with understandable and predictable outcry. Even though Alaska is doing much better than most of the rest of U.S. states, and $2 million is less than a tenth of a percent of the overall 2011 capital budget of more than $2.8 billion, the message sent by subsidizing 1,500 vacations at a time when school districts around the state — including Juneau’s — are cutting teachers is a pretty poor one. The pushback from the rest of the state was so great that UAA modified the program to require travelers to chip in about $100 of the airfare costs. Still, a $230 round-trip ticket to Anchorage amounts to partially paid vacations, courtesy of Alaska’s citizens.
The argument will be made the Shootout boosts Anchorage’s economy and is a showcase event for the state. Fair enough. Basketball teams and fans need hotels to stay in and restaurants to eat at, and the exterior shots on television of the snow-capped Chugach Mountains can be nothing but helpful for the state’s tourism industry. But instead of encouraging recycling Alaska’s dollars, we’d rather subsidies be directed towards boosting the profile of the tournament so top teams will once again want to play at the Shootout. Part of the $2 million from the capital budget is supposed to do that. However, bringing in Belmont, Oral Roberts and Loyola Marymount — sometimes good teams with small fan bases and limited alumni presence in Alaska — is a sign not nearly enough effort is being put into that part of boosting the tournament.
One of the tournament’s largest problems is outside of its control. The Shootout was once just one of a few “exempt” tournaments — tournaments where not all of the games played count against the maximum number of contests a college team can play in a season. The benefit was, and is obvious — more chances to play makes a team better, and more chances to play against good teams helps when it comes to boosting RPI, that all-important number that is a critical factor in if a team gets into the national championship tournament and how highly that team is seeded. That’s what brought teams like Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA — all former Shootout champions — to Anchorage. Now, however, exempt tournaments proliferate, and with everyone except the Alaska Legislature watching their wallets, it makes much more fiscal sense for UCLA to drive to Anaheim to play in an event that it does for them to fly all the way up the West Coast. Boosting the payout each team receives might help counteract that, and bring teams with large fan bases more likely to follow their squads everywhere to Alaska.
Sometimes a fiscal shot in the arm from the state is understandable, if it helps a fledgling enterprise get underway or keeps an entity from going under. But a free travel giveaway that simply subsidizes trips many people would have taken anyway and sells tickets that may or may not get used is a pretty poor form of boosterism. We’re hopeful the Legislature will put a little more thought into future plans to goose Alaska’s economy.