After Delays, Hooplandia Finally Gets a Chance to Shine
Tipping Off a Tradition
It’s been a long road from Hooplandia’s conception to its tipoff on June 23.
Even longer than the road — that would be Interstate 90 — from Springfield to Spokane, Wash., the home of Hoopfest, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament established 33 years ago that now draws 7,000 teams per year.
When he first visited Spokane, Gene Cassidy saw an enormous highway sign calling that city ‘Hooptown USA.’ And he had two initial thoughts, the first being that, if anyone should call themselves Hooptown, it’s Springfield, not Spokane. The second thought was that this type of event could be huge in the birthplace of basketball.
At the sight of the Hooptown USA sign, “I was shaking my head, asking, ‘how in the world does this region, this city, get that moniker?’” recalled Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition. “They’re on the right street, but that’s the wrong end of the country, right?”
So he brought that idea back to the right end of I-90. And by 2019, Cassidy and John Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, were busy planning to unveil Hooplandia the following June.
And then the pandemic shut the whole world down. Tourism and events were shuttered and canceled.
Or, in the case of Hooplandia, postponed. It was clear right away there would be no such event in 2020, but as the pandemic persisted and subsequent surges continued to hit the nation and the region, the tournament was scrapped for 2021 as well. And while the situation improved somewhat that year, there were too many uncertainties and not enough time to put a tournament in place for 2022.
Which brings us to 2023, and the inaugural Hooplandia event finally set to descend on the region for three days on June 23-25. Most games will be played at the Big E fairgrounds, while championship matches in numerous divisions — which include children, first responders, active military, veterans, high school and college students at various skill levels, adult teams at various age ranges, even Special Olympics and wheelchair teams — will get the spotlight of being hosted at the Hall of Fame itself.
“With three weeks left to go before the event takes place, we’ve got about 350 teams registered,” Cassidy said last week, adding that he hopes to reach 500 by tip-off. “And the growth potential is really unlimited. In Spokane, they’ve been doing it for 33 years. They’ve got 7,000 teams. And we’re prepared at Eastern States to beat them.”
Doleva agrees. He knows it will take time to ramp up to that level — but believes it’s possible.
“We’re at the beginning stages of this. And I think we’re in a really good position to launch this. Having the number of teams that Gene’s talking about and getting some momentum here is very important. This first year and the second year are going to be very important to position this tournament as a premier tournament for the future.”
He compared the progression of the tournament to a concentric circle that expands farther out each year.
“Spokane draws from all 48 states consistently. They have international teams,” he said. But after the first year or two in Springfield and West Springfield, “with B-roll to show and as we recruit teams and share through social media, all those things will build as we go further and further out. So I think Gene is right. We’ll go beyond New England this year, and we’ll go beyond that to Philadelphia and down to the Washington, D.C. area. And if we’re able to accomplish that, then we really are in kind of a national march with this by years three to five.”
Besides signing Dunkin’ on as presenting sponsor, Hooplandia has attracted many other big-name sponsors and supporters, including Baystate Health, Ford Dealers of New England, local Boys and Girls Clubs, PeoplesBank, Westfield Bank, and Bulkley Richardson, to name just a few.
“We are thrilled to support the inaugural Hooplandia event,” said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, adding that its Western Massachusetts Sports Commission division is committed to supporting athletic events that bring visitors into the region and contribute to the economic vitality of Western Mass. “Hooplandia is a great collaboration between the Eastern States Exposition and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame — two important attractions that have joined together to provide even more opportunities for increased visitation to the region.”
All that is gratifying to Cassidy. “Getting the community to buy in is really important,” he said. “In the end, we’re going to have a signature event for Greater Springfield that’s going to generate business for a lot of people and a lot of regional businesses, not the least of which will be hotels and restaurants. But it’s also going to raise awareness about basketball.”
As well it should, he and Doleva agree — especially in the rightful Hooptown USA, the one thousands of miles east on I-90 from Spokane.