Lori Sturdevant
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Chalk it up to Caitlin Clark fever. Maybe that's what revved my imagination when I heard Wendy Blackshaw say that the Twin Cities has the potential to be known as the nation's No. 1 market for major women's sports events.

Clark, I need not tell you, is the Iowa Hawkeyes star whose dead-eye three-point shots awakened a nation to the joy of women's basketball.

Blackshaw deserves an introduction. She's the president and CEO of Minnesota Sports and Events (MnS&E). It's the nonprofit entity created in June 2020 to combine the efforts of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington to bid, land and host major collegiate and professional contests.

I can't help pausing at that date — June 2020. If ever there was a time when these Twin Cities needed the jolt of civic pride and hope that Blackshaw's enterprise portended, that was it.

But MnS&E's emergence had little to do with the pandemic or George Floyd, Blackshaw attests. It was born of awareness after the 2018 Super Bowl and the 2019 NCAA Men's Final Four that this region's disjointed, duplicative, multicity approach to attracting big sports events was not optimal. And that getting this right was well worth more effort. More on that in a moment.

MnS&E didn't set out to emphasize events featuring female athletes. But the rave reviews Minnesota received for hosting the 2022 NCAA Women's Final Four and 2023 and 2024 Big Ten women's basketball tournaments have been noticed in the right places, Blackshaw reported.

So have the successes of Minnesota's women's sports teams (go Lynx!), the high rate of girls' participation in high school sports, and the evidence in, say, the U.S. Senate that female leadership is respected in these parts. Blackshaw said it even mattered in one recent bidding competition that Minnesota's statutes uphold reproductive freedom.

Next up for MnS&E will be the U.S. Olympic team trials for gymnastics June 27-30 — a sport in which women often outshine men — and the 2025 NCAA Women's Hockey Frozen Four next April.

Women's events aren't MnS&E's exclusive focus — far from it. The big fish that Blackshaw is reportedly close to landing is the decidedly male-dominated WrestleMania 2025, which sounds like a zany mashup of a Super Bowl and a Sturgis biker rally. She's also excited about the World Junior Hockey tournament set to arrive in late December 2025.

But Blackshaw says a branding opportunity for this region to be seen as "the first choice for women's events" is arising just as enthusiasm for Caitlin Clark and her contemporaries is surging. MnS&E is pondering how best to seize the moment.

Ideas abound. (How about a women's sports hall of fame?) But there's a big one that Blackshaw says is critical. MnS&E needs a consistent stream of public funds — something in the neighborhood of $25 million a year — to undergird bidding and hosting efforts.

Every other major city with which MnS&E competes — think Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Orlando — has claim to a steady flow of public money for bidding and hosting events, Blackshaw said. It often takes the form of a standing appropriation or a tax on lodging, hospitality or tickets. MnS&E has been eyeing the sports gambling bills that have been in play at the 2024 Legislature as a possible revenue source.

The source of the funding matters less than its reliability. "Event organizers will no longer name a host city unless it has a clearly identified way to pay for the event," Blackshaw said.

That's a change since 2014, when the NFL selected Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII. Then, the Twin Cities' promise to cover hosting costs by raising $55 million from corporate donors was sufficient. It wouldn't suffice today, Blackshaw said.

Two things are important to know about the money MnS&E seeks. One is that it's an investment that generally produces a handsome return for a host city's economy. For example, MnS&E's costs for winning the U.S. Olympics gymnastics trials in June were $6 million, which came in a one-time appropriation from the 2023 Legislature. The event is projected to generate $70 million in the Twin Cities.

The other thing to know is that those gains don't go into the pockets of wealthy athletes and teams. The bulk of them flows to the hospitality industry and, in particular, its workers, who live and spend locally. That's a segment of the workforce that could use the boost that crowd-attracting events bring. Blackshaw reported that during the March 3-9 Big Ten women's tournament, Minneapolis hotel occupancy hit 82.9%, its highest level since October 2019.

But hosting big events is about more than money. MnS&E acknowledges as much in its mission statement, which says it intends to bring "economic, reputational and social impact to our region." It works hard to make sure every event it attracts gives back to this region, often by engaging with young athletes and assisting youth sports programs.

Particularly here, particularly now, there's much to like about renewing a reputation for civic competence and pride. There's much to be gained from a visible affirmation of racial and gender inclusion. If those ideas are symptoms of Caitlin Clark fever, I've got it bad, and I hope it's contagious.

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.