Cotey: When it comes to hoop tourneys in the bay area, think local or go bust

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Mon. March 8, 2010 | John C. Cotey | Email

TAMPA — The Tampa Hoops Classic is in foul trouble.

Last week, organizer Conrad Foss said McDonald’s was pulling out as the lead sponsor, leaving the future of the holiday tournament in a precarious spot.

Without another major sponsor within 30 days or so, the three-year-old tournament will take a seat on the bench right next to the Hooters Holiday Classic, a St. Petersburg tournament that fouled out of the local hoops scene after 13 years, its last game in 2006.

The Tampa Hoops Classic is worth saving — three years is not enough time to make a final judgment — but a tournament hoping to make its mark nationally can’t survive in a market where locally USF can’t sell out Big East games, high school district tournaments are sparsely attended and the state championships in Lakeland are played in a half-empty arena … on a good night.

For all the usual reasons that apply — bad economy, bad sports market, too many other things to do — it comes down to this: Tampa just isn’t a basketball town.

Foss, however, disagrees. He thinks if he keeps bringing in great teams, and the media begin cooperating and change what he describes as “horrible” coverage of the event, the fans will come.
They won’t, though. Not as long as they can’t recognize the teams playing for the title.

Shoot, you probably can’t get much better than the 99-97 and 73-71 championship games in your first two years, then a meeting between national top 50 teams (Jacksonville Arlington Country Day and Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony) in December’s final.

And yet, the tournament has failed to deliver buzz.

If the rise and fall of the Hooters Holiday Classic taught us anything, it’s that no matter the star power, nonlocal finals are the kiss of death.

In Tampa Bay, the rule is: bring in the best players, bring in the best teams, then pray they don’t ruin your tournament.

Take Amar’e Stoudemire, for example. He had a good story, nasty game and in a few months was going to be an NBA lottery pick when he strolled into the Bayfront Center in 2001 to save the Hooters tourney.

His team from Orlando was set to play every night at 8:30, and the crowds were going to grow to a crescendo. The tournament, organizers hoped, would hit the big time.

Then Seminole’s Dan Plikunas, who was not an NBA lottery pick that year, scored 21 points and Stoudemire had 14 as the Warhawks pulled off the upset.

The next day, at 1:30 p.m., Stoudemire and his team were eliminated in a loser’s bracket game played in front of crickets, who furiously rubbed their legs together every time he dunked.

Stoudemire, quite frankly, flopped, and it should be noted that despite three stories advancing his appearance, including a front page centerpiece, Stoudemire didn’t draw a big crowd his first night either.
The tournament that year, though, was a rousing success.

How?

Lakewood, Boca Ciega and Largo made the semifinals. The crowds were estimated to be around 4,000.

The buzz was strident.

Foss and his organizers have not had such good fortune, much less a strong basketball community like south St. Petersburg has, to rely on.

Ridgewood was the top local finisher the first season; Sickles and hyped North Carolina recruit John Henson didn’t make a run in 2008; in 2009 Clearwater had a tough draw and couldn’t get by one of those out-of-towners (St. Anthony’s).

Great for Clearwater, which played a nationally ranked team.

Bad for the tournament that it didn’t happen in the semifinals or final.

To his credit, Foss put together a great field. Four of the teams played last week for state titles in Florida, including Tampa Prep. If this tournament were in Kentucky or Chicago, it would be a big hit.
But in this town, it takes more than national rankings and Division I signees to draw fans and make a successful tournament.

It takes time.

And a whole lotta luck.

We’ll know soon if he has run out of both.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@sptimes.coM

Photo: When local teams like Clearwater didn't advance far in the winner's bracket, crowds at the Tampa Bay Hoops Classic tended to dwindle.

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