Basketball

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Basketball: Traveling Widely

28 Dec, 2015

By: Michael Popke
With the Sport Healthy and a New International Emphasis on the 3-on-3 Game, More Cities than Ever are Getting into the Hoops Action

In the official program for the 2015 Division I Men’s Final Four, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo proclaimed that “basketball is the second most popular game in the world today.”

How popular?

Well, consider that the latest statistics suggest nearly 28 million kids between the ages of six and 17 play organized hoops, and so do more than 37.5 million adults 18 and older.

With numbers like those, it’s no surprise that tourism leaders in destination cities are constantly bouncing around new ideas to attract basketball tournaments and a wide diversity of participants.

Locales in which basketball is a top priority frequently host tourneys for youth, high school, college, adult and even over-50 players. And the recent rise of three-on-three competitions in the United States — Team Denver, which won the 2015 USA Basketball 3x3 National Tournament in Colorado Springs, Colorado, traveled to Japan in August as part of an effort to make the offshoot an Olympic sport — have opened up more opportunities.

Raleigh and Greenville, North Carolina

Where better to begin an exploration of basketball destinations than in North Carolina, one of the nation’s most renowned hotbeds for hoops?

“Basketball is very important to us and is one of the most common requests we get,” says Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.

No wonder: Raleigh is located along Tobacco Road, which comprises four of the most famous basketball universities in the country: North Carolina State in Raleigh, Duke in Durham, North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Wake Forest in Winston-Salem.

Raleigh also is home to one of the country’s oldest continuous high school basketball tournaments. What is now known as the HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational began in 1972 and features some of the top boys’ and girls’ players in the United States. Usually scheduled during the final week of the year, the tournament is held at Cary Academy and Broughton High School (where “Pistol Pete” Maravich played).

“It’s an unbelievable environment, and it’s famous for being a tough ticket,” Dupree says, adding that the teams often include recruits to Tobacco Road universities. Proceeds from the tournament go toward college scholarships for area high school students, made possible by the nonprofit Triangle Educational Advancement Foundation, which runs the tournament. 

Also, for the second time in three years, North Carolina State’s PNC Arena will host the first and second rounds of the 2016 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship in March. The Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance creates a local organizing committee for large-scale national events like March Madness and does everything from post welcome signs throughout the city to establish team hosts at players’ hotels.

Raleigh is the annual home of the Deep South Classic, too. This elite tournament for high school girls is played on 20 temporary courts laid down in the Raleigh Convention Center’s 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall and takes place during the NCAA’s only live recruiting period. Held every April for the past three years, the three-day event brings in about 380 teams.

Dupree says Raleigh would have the capacity to host even more basketball if the city had a public or private multi-purpose facility. (He’s not the only sports tourism director to have one of those on his wish list.)

About 85 miles east of Raleigh, officials in Greenville, North Carolina, want to make that city as synonymous with basketball as some of the other destinations in North Carolina. “We’re at a point where we’re looking at starting a sports commission in 2016,” says Gray Workman, sports sales manager for the Greenville-Pitt County Convention and Visitors Bureau. She adds that she hopes the city delivers on recent discussions to open a multi-purpose facility within the next 10 years in order to play host to large basketball tournaments.

With plenty of outdoor areas for baseball, soccer and lacrosse, Greenville has limited indoor space and has yet to become the basketball hotbed that its neighbors along Tobacco Road have.

That said, there’s still plenty of basketball opportunities in Greenville, where some of the high school gymnasiums look like collegiate venues, Workman says. The Eastern Independent Conference, comprised of independent high school and middle school teams, hosts its tournament in the city, and the Statewide Athletics Committee hosts a park and recreation tourney at various rec facilities in Greenville. Another available venue is the Charles Coburn Center at Pitt Community College.

Greenville also lays claim to something else no other city in the state can: The North Carolina Senior Games. The basketball competition usually is held in the East Carolina University Student Recreation Center, with the finals taking place in ECU’s Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum, which opened in 1968 but underwent a full renovation in the ’90s and now seats 8,000 fans. Last year’s Senior Games basketball competition drew more than 50 teams featuring 300 players between the ages of 50 and 85.

Lincoln, Nebraska

For years, Lincoln, Nebraska, was another city that did not have a large multi-purpose facility to attract major indoor sports tournaments. Then a public/private venture led to the development of the new $18 million indoor/outdoor Speedway Village — which is still a work in progress.

In addition to featuring 10 outdoor fields, a 65,000-square-foot field house and a 10,000-square-foot medical, rehabilitation and sports performance institute, the facility will open eight basketball courts that can be converted to 12 volleyball courts sometime in 2016, according to Derek Bombeck, sports sales and development manager for the Lincoln Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Lincoln established itself as basketball-friendly city a long time ago. Pinnacle Bank Arena (home of the University of Nebraska men’s and women’s basketball teams) opened in late 2013 and has hosted the Nebraska School Activities Association’s state basketball championships, regional rounds of the 2014 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament and exhibition NBA games. The university’s Bob Devaney Center and Lincoln high schools also host state high school tournament play.

Another popular annual event that has been coming to Lincoln every March since 1990 is the YMCA Midwest Invitational Basketball Tournament, which also is held at multiple locations around the city. That event brings in about 450 youth teams and is held the same weekend as the state high school boys’ tournament.

Meanwhile, excitement continues to build for Speedway Village, which is expected to revitalize sports tourism in the community. “Everybody is interested in the new facility,” Bombeck says. “This is definitely important for Lincoln’s future. When you’re trying to host a quality event, you don’t want all the participants moving around to different venues.”

Hampton & Montgomery County, Virginia

One city with plenty of venues to help keep basketball tourneys under one roof is Hampton, Virginia — home to no fewer than four large-scale facilities. The two most popular ones are the Boo Williams Sportsplex and the Hampton Roads Convention Center. As Brooks Hierstein, sports sales and service manager for the Hampton Convention & Visitor Bureau says: “There is a lot of basketball happening in Hampton.”

The 135,000-square foot Boo Williams Sportsplex opened in 2008 and was specifically designed for amateur athletic competition. In addition to basketball, the center hosts volleyball, indoor field hockey, dance, cheerleading and other sports events. It is the largest facility of its kind between Washington, D.C., and Greensboro, North Carolina, and it will welcome an estimated 400 teams for the 2016 AAU Boys’ Basketball National Championships in multiple divisions and age groups over the course of a month this summer.

Meanwhile, both the Sportsplex and convention center will collectively host the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League Invitational Tournament for girls in April and boys in May. Both tourneys have become mainstays in Hampton. Another pair of multi-purpose facilities, the Hampton Coliseum and the Hampton University Convocation Center, also have been used for basketball events.

Almost 300 miles west of Hampton, the situation is a little different in Montgomery County, Virginia. Like several of its sports destination counterparts in other cities, there is no dedicated multi-purpose facility to host large-scale basketball tournaments. But thanks to a strong park and recreation program, the towns of Christiansburg and Blacksburg have brought in large regional youth tournaments and work with Virginia Tech and Radford University to promote the sport.

Lisa Bleakley, executive director of the Montgomery County Regional Tourism Office, says the area is just beginning to focus on becoming a key sports destination. And she thinks that with the recent success of Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball team and positive word of mouth about the park and rec tournaments, demand to host basketball in the back-to-nature environment of Montgomery County will increase.

“We’re a pretty well-kept secret here,” Bleakley says, and then laughs. “Watch out, North Carolina!”

Conway, Arkansas

Another city with strong ties to local colleges and universities is Conway, Arkansas, home to the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College. Of those, UCA is used the most, largely because it has more courts (four) than the other two institutions. Among the more significant basketball events the university hosts are the boys’ and girls’ high school state all-star basketball games every June.

Conway also offers two city-owned complexes, the Don Owens Sports Center and the McGee Center, each with three basketball courts that regularly host HoopPlay USA tournaments for youth and high school players — including the renowned Toad Suck Tournament, which is part of Toad Suck Daze and brings in about 150 local and out-of-state teams.

Like Greenville, North Carolina, Conway’s current strengths are baseball, softball and soccer. “We stay busy all of the summer months, so now we’re looking to expand our offerings to more indoor sports,” says Rachel Shaw, director of destination marketing for the Conway Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Billings, Montana

One of the destination cities embracing the increasing participation in 3x3 basketball is Billings, Montana.

“When you think about how many of us learned the game on the playgrounds, a lot of it was 3x3,” Colangelo said in a February 2015 USA Basketball press release. “It’s a different game in the sense that it takes a unique set of skills to be competitive. It’s exciting, it’s short, it’s quick. And I think the more competition we can develop within the game of basketball, such as 3x3, it’s going to serve our purposes as it relates to growing our game.”

In a way, 3x3 is ideal for Billings — one of Montana’s largest cities, which also offers plenty of more traditional basketball opportunities. As one of the premier destinations in the region, its 3x3 tournaments bring in 80 teams of youth players seeking competition to prepare them for high school ball. Games often are played at four high schools and two colleges.  

Billings lost a bid to Reno, Nevada, to host the Big Sky Conference Men's and Women’s Basketball Championships from 2016 to 2018, but the bidding process helped city officials build relationships with the NCAA and other entities that Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings, is confident will prosper.  

“I think they see Billings in a different light now and realize what an appropriate sports destination we are,” she says, adding that her organization helped renew the long-running Border War basketball game between Montana State University and the University of Wyoming beginning in 2015 at Rimrock Auto Arena after almost a 10-year absence. Those efforts, she hopes, also will help boost Billings’ status as a basketball contender.

“That’s why we attached ourselves to the Border War,” Tyson says. “And we will continue to attach Billings to quality sports events.” 

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