A lack of “elite” early-season basketball tournaments was the impetus for the creation of a new tournament, the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off.
Now in its second year, the Fort Myers Tip-Off is continuing to build its status with longevity in mind, said Drew Russell, executive vice president at Intersport, the agency behind the tournament. Russell said only a few of the early-season college basketball events have a long-term view prioritizing high-quality competition and local community involvement. A notable example Intersport’s team uses is the Maui Invitational, now in its 36th year.
Intersport has a pedigree for putting on college basketball events, including the college slam dunk and 3-point competitions and, more recently, the 3X3U National Championship. The Fort Myers Tip-Off helps extend Intersport’s college basketball properties across the season, Russell said.
“We took a look at the marketplace and determined there are dozens of tournaments and invitationals, but very few that were considered elite,” Russell said. “Based on our expertise, the way we manage and build events, there was an opportunity to build another.”
A key for Intersport was to find a tourist-centric location with a solid “snowbird” population with a tourism and convention bureau interested in helping put on an event. The interest emanating from Fort Myers began when Florida Gulf Coast University made its 2013 Sweet 16 run. The Cape Coral-Fort Myers area also experienced a 22% population growth from 2010 to 2018.
“The community responded with, ‘This is an opportunity to create something big,’” Russell said.
Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, has an active sports tourism agency that has been focused on putting “heads in beds” with grassroots youth baseball tournaments and MLB Spring Training. With FGCU’s run, basketball fever hit the town. The new event connects more Division 1 basketball to Fort Myers, which raises the area’s sports profile nationally, said Jeff Mielke, Lee County Sports Development executive director.
That made the market ripe for the Fort Myers Tip-Off, said Mark Starsiak, Intersport vice president.
“If you wait for the stars to align certain years, it’s harder to build,” Starsiak said. “You have to be aggressive, show yourself in the beginning and it grows faster and makes returns more immediate.”
Starsiak noted the tournaments come and go with a variety of business models, many looking for a quick buck. Focusing instead on building a quality tournament takes time, Starsiak said.
“Our field continues to progress and we continue to focus on creating an unbelievable experience for the universities, coaches, players and fans,” he said.
The first year’s field was Boston College, Wyoming, Richmond, and Loyola Chicago. This year, Pitt, Kansas State, Northwestern and Bradley hit the court. Next year, Butler, Wisconsin, Colorado and South Florida will make their way to Fort Myers.
From year one to year two, Starsiak said the tournament’s growth is strong, doubling the number of ticket sales the week prior to the start of the event and quadrupling the number of travel packages sold. The first night’s games had an announced attendance of more than 2,200 – more than double that of the first year.
Attendance growth is projected, but there’s not much room for that in the long term, as the venue, Suncoast Credit Union Arena, only has 3,300 seats. While Russell said the venue gives the organizers a “perfect venue” to create “energy and a community,” it also allows the growth to also come from investing in events outside the arena.
In October, the first of a pair of clinics was held to help grow the game in Southwest Florida. The first clinic was for coaches, with Reggie Theus and Joe Prunty. This month, a youth clinic hosted approximately 100 youth players.
On November 24, the Sunday before play started, a welcome reception was held at the Edison Ford Estate to bring the fans and visitors into the community. The Tuesday between the two nights of play was a fan festival in the Fort Myers River District to fully incorporate the local residents in an effort to get them to fully buy-in.
“We value, want and need the boosters and fans traveling, but we need that local base,” Russell said. “[We want] for this to be important to civic pride. We need more interface than the two games over two nights.”
As far as growth planned in the coming years, Russell said it’s just following the path they’ve set forth on. That means continuing to find partners that will give back to the community, increasing the number of clinics and concentrating on building the tournament’s brand.
The games are all televised on FS1 with Bill Raftery on the call.
Russell said the longevity of the event will also continue to build a legacy on the court, as more renowned programs come and enjoy the experience, resulting in more solid games showing up in the boxscores.
“I know it was the first year of this tournament, and it was a first-class event,” Boston College head coach Jim Christian said following last year’s event. “This is going to be a big-time event because the people who ran it care so much. Word will spread, and what’s going to happen is that more and more teams are going to want to come because it’s a beautiful area, it’s a basketball community, and the games were fun.”