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Episode 128: September 5, 2022

George Interviews Mark Rivers, event producer for Hooplandia, the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament coming to the region next summer

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Mark Rivers, event producer for Hooplandia, the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament coming to the region next summer. The two talk about how this concept came together, how it survived three years of cancellations and delays due to COVID, and why this tournament, a production, led by the Big E and the Basketball Hall of Fame, has the potential to become a legacy event. It’s all must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest  and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Stressing the Fundamentals

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E,

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, announces plans for Hooplandia at a press conference staged last month.

Mark Rivers acknowledged that a lot of things have changed since he and officials at the Big E and the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame first announced that the region would host a giant three-on-three basketball tournament to be called Hooplandia.

Indeed, that announcement came late in 2019, just a few months before the arrival of COVID-19, which would eventually cancel large-scale events of all kinds and put plans for Hooplandia on ice — for 2020, 2021, and then 2022.

But what hasn’t changed, said Rivers, a marketing and programming consultant to the Eastern States Exposition who has also worked with the Hall of Fame on tournaments, is that what he calls the ‘fundamentals’ are still in place.

“Fundamentally, and probably most importantly, the idea going in, even in 2019, was to create an event that would be around for 40 years or more, just like in Spokane. So if you’re looking at creating an event that’s a 40-year event, it doesn’t get stale after a few years — it’s still a grand idea and still a great proposition for the region.”

“Three-on-three basketball is still very, very popular, and Springfield is the birthplace of basketball,” he told BusinessWest, as he explained, succinctly and effectively, why those who conceived Hooplandia are still bullish on this concept and are proceeding with a tournament set for late June 2023.

If anything, conditions are even better, he said, noting that three-on-three basketball has only become more popular as a sport — and a competition (more on that later).

John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame, agreed, noting that, while it might have been easy to walk away from the event given all the challenges and uncertainty moving forward, the vast potential of the concept led them to stay the course.

The cover of the March 2, 2020 edition of BusinessWest

The cover of the March 2, 2020 edition of BusinessWest announced Hooplandia. That was just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down the state and put Hooplandia on ice for what will be three years.

“Everyone stayed with it, and that’s very encouraging,” he said. “To have all those entities — the Big E, the city of West Springfield, Mark Rivers — step up and be as committed, if not more, after a couple of years is a very positive thing.

“Everything is lined up for a great event,” he went on. “It just took a little longer to get there.”

In fact, it will be roughly four years from the date it was first conceptualized until the whistle that starts the first game on June 23, 2023. But everyone involved is sure it will be worth the wait.

Turning back the clock, Rivers said planning for Hooplandia began in early 2019. Inspired by a huge tournament in Spokane, Wash. called Hooptown USA that brings tens of thousands of people to that city every June, Rivers conceived of a concept that would unite the Big E and the Hall of Fame in an endeavor that would capitalize on the soaring popularity of three-on-three basketball and bring the game to the area where the sport was invented.

The March 2, 2020 issue of BusinessWest featured Doleva and Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, standing on either side of a poster promoting Hooplandia. The headline read: “Nothing but Net: Hooplandia Has the Makings of a Legacy Event.”

Just a few weeks later, the state was in lockdown. A few months later, it was clear to everyone that there would be no Hooplandia in 2020. And 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 — enough for the Big E to make a much-anticipated comeback after being idled for 2020 — there were too many uncertainties and not enough time to put a tournament in place for 2022, Rivers said.

Young players get a taste for 3-on-3 basketball

Young players get a taste for 3-on-3 basketball at the press conference announcing the Hooplandia event set for June, 2023.

“We thought we could do it in 2021, but there was still a lot of overhang related to crowd gathering and big events,” he said. “And with Hooplandia, you need almost a year’s run-up, because you open up registration six months prior and mobilize your whole organization, and we couldn’t predict what June 2021 was going to look like. Then, we get into 2021, and we just didn’t have enough time to get it organized for ’22; and once you commit, you commit, and we were fearful about putting a lot of time and resources into this and having to pull the plug again.”

But through all of that, no one involved in Hooplandia had any thoughts of giving up on this concept.

That’s because of those fundamentals, he went on, adding that what was true in those early days of 2020 remains true today — Hooplandia does have the makings of a legacy event.

“Fundamentally, and probably most importantly, the idea going in, even in 2019, was to create an event that would be around for 40 years or more, just like in Spokane,” Rivers explained. “So if you’re looking at creating an event that’s a 40-year event, it doesn’t get stale after a few years — it’s still a grand idea and still a great proposition for the region. It’s not like three-on-three basketball went away or Springfield is no longer the birthplace of the game. Those things didn’t change.”

Essentially, organizers are picking up where they left off, said Cassidy, with expectations that the 2023 event will draw 1,000 or more teams (4,000 players) across a number of categories — from youths to veterans; from those in wheelchairs to what would be considered professionals in this sport — and that it will grow over time to draw several thousand teams and someday rival Spokane’s event in terms of size and prestige.

“Spokane is the benchmark because that is an economic driver — it’s an annual event that brings tens of millions of dollars to the local economy. To bring in 1,500 teams and grow that every year to 10,000, that’s a big initiative, but it’s not an unrealistic goal.”

The original plan was to mobilize the grounds of the Eastern States, play a handful of games at the Hall of Fame, have both organizations work together on marketing and promoting the event, and conduct some outreach to basketball organizations and teams throughout the Northeast, Rivers said. And, by and large, that is still the plan.

If anything, he went on, three-on-three basketball is probably even more popular than it was when Hooplandia was first conceived.

“It’s now an Olympic sport, it’s now an international sport with national teams representing their countries in international play, and there’s more and more tournaments around the country that are focusing on this caliber of basketball,” he explained. “So it’s become a little more common, and I think we have a great opportunity to be a leader in that segment.”

Doleva agreed.

“No one has stepped back from that, and I guess that’s the big thing,” he said. “No one has said, ‘let’s do this on a 25% scale.’ It’s all hands on deck.”

Elaborating, he said local organizers have Spokane as a target, with a goal of seeing Hooplandia approach and even exceed that scale when it comes to everything from the number of participating teams to the impact on the local economy.

“Spokane is the benchmark because that is an economic driver — it’s an annual event that brings tens of millions of dollars to the local economy,” Doleva told BusinessWest. “To bring in 1,500 teams and grow that every year to 10,000, that’s a big initiative, but it’s not an unrealistic goal.”

Hooplandia will actually be staged the same weekend as the festival in Spokane, but organizers don’t see it as competition for that event.

“We’re 3,000 miles away,” Doleva said. “We see this an opportunity for people from the Midwest east to come to Springfield and play in a tournament where they might not have gone all the way to the West Coast — and you have the allure of the Hall of Fame.”

These are more of the fundamentals that prompted organizers to take Hooplandia from the drawing board to reality more than three years ago. And they are the fundamentals that have prompted them to stay the course — and stay on course — through more whitewater than anyone could have imagined in early March 2020.

As Cassidy told BusinessWest and all those assembled at a recent press conference to announce the new date for the tournament, “it’s game on for 2023!”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — After nearly three years of pandemic-era scheduling hurdles, Springfield and West Springfield will host Hooplandia, the largest 3×3 basketball competition and celebration on the East Coast, on June 23-25, 2023.

The event, which will be hosted by the Eastern States Exposition and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, will feature hundreds of games for thousands of players of all ages and playing abilities, with divisions for young girls, boys, women, men, high-school elite, college elite, pro-am, OGs, wheelchair, Wounded Warrior, Special Olympians, veterans, first responders, and more.

The event will feature more than 70 outdoor blacktop courts placed throughout the roadway and parking-lot network of the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds in West Springfield; slam-dunk, three-point, free-throw, dribble-course, vertical-jump, and full-court-shot skills competitions; themed state courts for all six New England states; featured ‘showcase games’ held on new court surfaces in the historic Eastern States Coliseum and on the Court of Dreams, the center court of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; and a festival environment throughout the weekend with food, music, entertainment, and family activities.

The announcement was made today at Eastern States Exposition (ESE) with Eugene J. Cassidy, President and CEO of ESE; John Doleva, President and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt and a host of other regional civic leaders.

“It is a thrill to finally be able to say, ‘game on for Hooplandia!’” said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition. “We are re-energized by the resilience, vision, and collaboration of our partners in this exciting initiative to celebrate basketball. It has been three years of overtime to bring reality to a project and purpose that has never lost its power or potential. Once again, we are excited to transform our grounds into the magical kingdom of Hooplandia for thousands of visitors next summer.”

John Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, added that “Springfield is the heart and soul of the basketball world, from its humble beginnings to our home as its Hall of Fame. Hooplandia is a natural extension of this legacy, with a grassroots competition and celebration for all ages. We are proud to help build this event, which we hope will grow to become a summer staple of Greater Springfield for years to come.”

A year-long community-outreach effort will begin immediately. Registration will open on March 1, 2023.

Cover Story Meetings & Conventions

Nothing but Net

John Doleva, left, and Eugene Cassidy say Hooplandia could have a huge economic impact on the Greater Springfield region.

One observer referred to Hoopfest, the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash., as a ‘phenomenon,’ and the adjective fits. The event consumes 40 blocks in the downtown and literally takes over the city each June. Inspired, a group of organizers are looking to do something similar — although Springfield won’t be taken over — in just four months. The event is called Hooplandia, and it’s already being hailed as a slam dunk for the region.

Mark Rivers called it “an a-ha moment.’ Then he quickly amended the phrase in a poignant manner.

“It was an ‘aha/duh!’ moment.”

He was referring to his visit last summer to the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in downtown Spokane, Wash., called Hoopfest. And by giant, we mean giant. Indeed, it is billed as the largest event of its kind in the world, and no one doubts that claim. It annually draws more than 7,000 teams, or 28,000 participants (four people to a team on average), and total visitation for the tournament, staged the final weekend in June, approaches 200,000‚ which is roughly the city’s population.

While taking in Hoopfest and marveling at its size and the manner in which it has become synonymous with Spokane, Rivers, an event promoter by trade who has developed strong ties to both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, had that aforementioned ‘moment,’ during which he concluded that this event, or something like it, would be an even more natural fit in the birthplace of basketball.

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’”

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’” he recalled, adding that not only is the city home to the Hall of Fame, it’s located in the heavily populated Northeast, whereas Spokane is in decidedly rural Central Washington.

“It just seemed to make a whole lot of sense,” he went on, adding that what also made sense was to stage the event in the wide-open spaces of the Big E, which has all the needed infrastructure, and also at the Hall of Fame and its Center Court, which would be a special place to play games and act as a magnet for teams around the world.

Fast-forward eight months or so, and Hooplandia, the name chosen for this event, is moving on a fast train toward its June 26-28 debut. Such speed is attainable because of the partners involved — especially the Big E, where most of the games will be staged, and the Hall of Game, which is, indeed, proving to be a strong selling point.

Mark Rivers, seen here at a recent press event announcing Hooplandia, says the gathering has the potential to be a legacy event for the region.

“I’ve already had inquiries from teams in Russia, Belgium, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, and Brazil,” Rivers explained. “I don’t know if we’ll get teams from all those countries, but we’ve had inquiries — a lot of these teams have expressed an interest in playing in the hometown of basketball and increasing their profile with games in the U.S.”

The goals for this first edition of Hooplandia — and specifically the one for participation (2,500 teams) — are ambitious, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, but they are also attainable — and sustainable.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country,” said Cassidy, who experienced Hoopfest while visiting Spokane for a fair-association meeting a few years ago and had the same reaction as Rivers. “And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

Even if the first-year goals are met, or even approached, then Hooplandia could well wind up being one of the biggest single events (the 16-day Big E aside, obviously) the region has seen.

That becomes apparent in the projections for overall economic impact, a formula with a number of factors, including hotel stays, restaurant meals, rental cars, and many others, that Mary Kay Wydra, executive director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, describes this way:

“It’s an industry standard, and we use it for all our conventions. We populate different data fields, like the average daily rate they’ll pay, how many people are coming, how many rooms they’ll be utilizing … we put that into the calculator, and it spits out a number for us.”

However the number is derived, for this first edition of Hooplandia, the projected total is roughly $7.3 million. For some perspective, the recently staged Red Sox Winter Weekend, which brought a host of star players, past and present, fans from across the broad Red Sox nation, and a horde of media, was projected to bring in $2 million (the final numbers are still being tabulated). Meanwhile, the AHL All-Star Classic weekend, staged just over a year ago, brought in $2.8 million, according to Wydra, and the much-publicized square-dancing convention in 2015 that brought 4,000 people to Springfield for eight days brought in $2.3 million.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country. And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

“This is certainly about basketball, but it’s also about economic development and tourism,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame. “It’s about filling hotel rooms and having people come to the Hall and the Seuss museum and the Armory and local restaurants … this is a multi-day event, and people will stay for the duration and perhaps longer.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hooplandia, what it can become, and what it might mean to the region.

Court of Opinion

Rivers calls it “getting the plane off the ground.”

That’s an industry phrase of sorts for launching an event of this magnitude. It’s never easy, he said, but with Hooplandia, there are a number of factors contributing to make it somewhat easier.

Especially the ability to stage this huge event at the Big E, a place — and a business — that’s well-versed in hosting large events, everything from the fair itself to a wide range of shows and competitions that fill the calendar.

To help explain, Rivers first referenced Hoopfest, which, essentially takes over downtown Spokane for three days, shutting down roughly 40 blocks in the heart of the city, a logistically difficult and expensive undertaking.

“Typically, when an event like this comes together, you do have a hard time getting the plane off the ground because your first expenses are renting port-a-potties, tents and road barricades, permits, shutting down streets, and doing all those things,” he went on. “You won’t have to do any of those at the fairgrounds, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”

Indeed, the majority of Hooplandia’s thousands of individual games will take place on the roads within the Big E’s 39 acres, although some will be played in its historic Coliseum, said Cassidy, adding that there is infrastructure in place to effectively handle the teams, spectators, media, and anyone else who descends on the area.

“We can handle large numbers of people; we have the capacity to host huge events — it’s what we do,” he said, adding that he has always viewed the Big E as an economic driver for the region — again, not just with the annual fair but all the events staged there — and Hooplandia provides another opportunity to build upon that role.

At the same time, the event provides an opportunity to further leverage basketball for the benefit of the region’s economy.

“It occurred to me that basketball should be an economic growth industry for Springfield,” he noted. “Hooplandia can help drive attendance to the Hall, drive awareness, and build the brand of basketball in the city where it was invented.”

Planning continues for the event, which, as noted earlier, has the ambitious goal of attracting 2,500 teams. And these teams will cover a broad spectrum, said all those we spoke with, adding that this will differentiate this tourney and festival from some others like it and add to its already strong drawing power.

Mark Rivers says the Big E’s vast spaces and deep infrastructure will help ‘get the plane off the ground’ when it comes to Hooplandia.

Indeed, there will be divisions for youths, high-school and college players, professionals, first responders, veterans, military, wheelchair, Special Olympics, and more, said Rivers.

There will also be an under-8, or U8, division, for which entrance fees will be waived in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, the former NBA superstar who died in a recent helicopter crash (and wore number 8 in his playing days).

In addition to the hoop tournaments, a number of other activities are on the agenda, many to take place the Friday night before the playing starts in the Coliseum, said Doleva. These include slam dunk, 3-point shot, free throw, full-court shot, dribble course, and vertical jump competitions.

To date, several partners have signed on, including Chevrolet, the first national-level sponsor, as well as USA Basketball, Springfield College, and Boys & Girls Clubs, which Hooplandia has designated as its charitable partner, offering financial support and playing opportunities for boys and girls in the region. For more information, visit www.hooplandia.com.

Overall, in the opinion of those now planning it, this is the right event at the right time, and the right city (or region), and we’ll address each of those in turn.

Actually, the first two go together. The event is 3-on-3 basketball, and the timing could not be better, because the sport — already described as the largest urban team sport in the world in one study — is enjoying a surge in popularity, said Doleva, with new leagues such as Big3, a league founded by Ice Cube featuring mostly former NBA stars.

And it will almost certainly enjoy another growth spurt after the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where 3-on-3 basketball will make its debut as an Olympic sport.

“3-on-3 has become sort of the hot segment of the sport, and for a bunch of reasons,” said Rivers. “The Olympics is part of it, but beyond that, 3-on-3 makes the sport more accessible because you only need six players, and you only need half a court; it’s particularly hot in Europe, and many of the best teams come from former Soviet Bloc countries — that’s where a lot of the great ball is being played.”

As for the place, as Rivers and others noted, Springfield, and in this case Greater Springfield (the Big E is across the river), is a natural location.

Not only it is the home of the game and its Hall of Fame, but it’s located in the Northeast, two hours from New York, 90 minutes from Boston, and well within reach of a number of large metropolitan areas.

And, as noted, some of those great teams from Europe — and individuals from across the country — are already expressing interest in playing on what could truly be called the sport’s home court.

A Slam Dunk

This brings us back to those projections about overall economic impact. The numbers are still being crunched and there are a number of factors that go into the final projection, said Wydra, but at the moment, the number is $7 million.

That’s based on the assumption that, while many participating teams will be local, meaning they will drive to and from the Big E each day to compete, a good number — again, just how many is not yet known — will have to travel into the region and stay a few nights.

At the moment, the projected number of hotel-room nights is 1,500, said Wydra. Again, to put things in perspective, there were 840 room nights for Red Sox Winter Weekend and 4,666 for the square-dance convention, and for Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the number varies depending on who is being inducted, but the 2019 edition had 850.

And for Hooplandia, these room nights will be coming at an important time for the region’s hospitality-related businesses, she went on, adding that the college-graduation season will have ended, but summer won’t be in highest gear.

“I love the timing — school is just out, and people have the ability to travel,” she said. “The other good thing about the June weekend is that Six Flags is up and running, and we have a lot of things for people to do when they’re not at the event. You bring people in for specific purpose, but if we can expose them to other things, we have the ability to bring them back again as a leisure visitor, and that’s very important.”

Wydra said that a now-former member of her team had a chance to observe and absorb Hoopfest first-hand — and somewhat by accident.

Coincidentally, Spokane was hosting the square-dance convention mentioned earlier the year before Springfield was scheduled to do so — and on the same weekend as Hoopfest. The GSCVB had someone on hand to observe the dance gathering and promote the following year’s edition.

But while doing so, she got a good taste of the reach — and the deep impact — of the 3-on-3 festival.

“I remember her calling in and us asking about the square-dance event, and she said, ‘the city’s been taken over by this massive basketball event, and everywhere you look there’s basketball courts, traffic’s been rerouted … it’s huge.”

It won’t be quite like that in Greater Springfield because the event will mostly take place at the Big E. But the impact will be significant, and the region — and especially its hospitality sector — will know that there are thousands of people in the area to play 3-on-3 basketball.

And organizers say it has the potential to not only reach the size of Hoopfest in terms of teams and visitation, but perhaps match it in terms of impact and providing an identity for the region — which would be saying something given what the Spokane event has become.

“Hoopfest is truly part of the culture of that community,” said Rivers. “Hoopfest is to Spokane what the Tournament of Roses is to Pasadena — it’s the fair-haired community phenomenon of that region, and it’s wonderfully done.

“With Hooplandia, I believe we have the makings of a true legacy event, something that could last for decades, much like Hoopfest,” he went on. “I think it will have meaningful, long-lasting economic impact, and I also think that, over the years, it will become a week in June that will be about more than basketball — it will be a week-long celebration of the sport.”

Cassidy agreed. While in Spokane, he saw and heard that the city referred to itself as ‘Hoop Town USA,’ and has trademarked that brand. “Quite honestly, I was offended by that,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Springfield should have that designation. With Hooplandia, hopefully it will — trademark aside.

Getting a Bounce

Returning to Spokane one last time, figuratively, anyway, Rivers described it as a “phenomenon.”

“It’s unbelievable … you can’t get a hotel room, you can’t get a rental car, you can’t get a dinner reservation,” he said. “It’s exciting, and it’s fun.”

Whether Hooplandia can approach that same kind of impact remains to be seen, but all those involved believe it has the potential to be, as they say in this sport, a slam dunk.

Or, as Rivers and others said, a legacy event for this region.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

For years now, economic-development leaders have been talking about the need to better leverage the sport of basketball in the place where it was invented.

What they’ve always meant by that is that Greater Springfield has to a better job of capitalizing on perhaps the strongest point of identification when it comes to the city, and perhaps this entire region, beyond the mountain range known as the Berkshires — to do a better job taking full advantage of what is truly an international sport and one that, unlike football, baseball, or hockey, can be played and enjoyed by people of all ages and levels of ability.

Put another way, what people have been saying is that Springfield needs to be more than the home of the sport’s Hall of Fame; it needs to be the sport’s mecca, if that’s possible, given the number of places — from Madison Square Garden to Tobacco Road in North Carolina to the state of Indiana — that have a rich tradition of basketball and also want to make that claim.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to move in this direction, everything from season-opening games for college basketball at the MassMutual Center to the Spalding HoopHall Classic, which brought hundreds of young people — and top college coaches — to the area. And now, the region is poised to take a huge step forward with an ambitious project called Hooplandia.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

Inspired by Hoopfest in Spokane, Wash., which attracts roughly 7,000 teams, 28,000 players, and about 200,000 visitors overall, and firm of the belief that Springfield would be an even better place for such an event, organizers, including the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Eastrn States Exposition, which will host the event and most of the games, have quickly put a new event on the calendar.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

They gave it a name, Hooplandia, and scheduled it for the same weekend in late June as Hoopfest. They have ambitious goals, not just for the first year — 2,500 teams and 10,000 players — but to eventually supplant Spokane’s event as the largest of its type.

This is where some people might start to think about the recent and highly publicized competition, if it could be called that, between Springfield and Battle Creek, Mich. for the rights to say which city held the largest breakfast gathering in the world (Springfield liked to claim that its pancake breakfast, staged by the Spirit of Springfield, earned that honor).

But this isn’t about outgunning Spokane to say who has the largest 3-on-3 tournament. It is about aggressively leveraging a tremendous asset — Springfield’s identity as home to perhaps the most popular sport in the world. This is reflected in some early projections for overall economic impact — $7 million, which would be nearly four times the amount from the recent Red Sox Winter Weekend.

It’s still early in the process — registration for Hoolandia didn’t begin until March 1 — but already it appears that teams from not only across the region, but also countries like Russia, Belgium, Poland, and Brazil want to not simply vie for another 3-on-3 title but perhaps play a game on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is what people, including this publication, have meant by better leveraging the sport of basketball.

We won’t call this a slam dunk yet — that would be presumptuous — but it certainly appears that the region has a winner in the making.

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