A Tournament With March Madness Implications - In Our Own Backyard

The Ohio State Buckeyes hoisted the colorful, acrylic Emerald Coast Classic trophy above their heads after a 30-point thrashing of Santa Clara in the tournament’s final contest. The team, led by guards Bruce Thornton and Dale Bonner – along with forward Jamison Batte got national attention after the game for their deft performances on the court. 

But once the final buzzer sounded, the players ran off the court, and the fans emptied their seats – the only score that mattered locally was the last economic impact of the tournament, which will celebrate its tenth season in 2024, on the Niceville Area. 

 

men playing basketball
Mark Sears goes to the net with a layup against The Ohio State Buckeyes. Ohio State Would prevail in the Friday Night Opener that was played in front of an officially sold out crowd. 📸 Connor Waltz

The tournament takes place annually on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. Big-name teams from around the country come to play each other for a trophy – and a better shot at a postseason tournament spot thanks to playing tough competition. This year, Oregon, Santa Clara, Ohio State, and Alabama came to the beach to play. In years past, teams like Virginia, Illinois, Ole Miss, and Cinncinatti have come down to Niceville. 

Many fans traveled from Ohio, Alabama, California, and Oregon to watch their teams play in Raider Arena. Some, like Dwayne Jackson and his daughter Mila, came from Ft. Myers, Florida, to see family members and close friends play in the tournament, too. 

According to an article posted by the Emerald Coast Classic, the financial impact of a tournament, arguably the largest sporting event in Okaloosa County every year, is in the neighborhood of $1.7 million

“I think it brings a lot of eyes to the area,” said tournament organizer Maury Hanks, a former NBA scout, “And you know, people come down here again, and this time of year, great weather, and then they can come here, and it’s not your busy season. It’s not fall break or spring break for the summer. And so I think you bring a lot of lot to the area of Niceville that, you know, before the tournament was here, it didn’t happen.”

The tournament sold out its tickets to the games before the first tip-off – which meant there was plenty of interest in at least some of the games from the fans. But some who couldn’t get tickets complained about the empty seats in the stands on television. The tickets are sold as a bundle to all of the games on each particular day, which means Oregon fans might have bought tickets to see the Ducks game and headed for the door when another set of teams lined up on the court. 

Even though he had a sellout crowd of 2,400, Hanks says the lack of local knowledge about the tournament frustrates him. “Nobody here locally knows about this tournament,” Hanks said, “We stay, or I stay over at the Embassy Suites [in Destin]. And I go into a liquor store to buy beer for the referees – this is about four or five years ago. [The store owner said], ‘What are you doing in town? Are you here for Thanksgiving? I said, ‘No, sir. I’m here to work.’ He goes, ‘What do you do?’ I said to run a basketball tournament. He said, ‘The high school?’ I said, ‘No, a college tournament.’ He says, ‘What kind of colleges’ and I said, ‘Cincinnati,’ He says, ‘Hold on, the University of Cincinnati, the Bearkats?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he showed me his class ring. And he goes, ‘I had no idea that tournament was here.'”

Hanks continued, “I think if more local people know it because it gets harder and harder every year to run a tournament. There’s more and more competition, more tournaments, you know, with NIL and things like that.”

Maury Hanks runs the Emerald Coast Classic Basketball Tournament. The Classic was sold out Friday night when Oregon and Santa Clara Clashed - and When Ohio State took on Alabama.

Economic Impact on Okaloosa County

Local businesses felt the impact of the tournament – but not in the way you might expect.

Francis Camosse is an owner of 3rd Planet Brewing in Niceville – and the brewery’s taproom manager. He’s not a sports guy, so he says he wasn’t aware of the tournament initially. They had the biggest band that visits the brewery on a regular basis, Duchess, on the outdoor stage Saturday night, but had a smaller than normal crowd. “our numbers were down,” Camosse remembered, “But, I think the demographic was a little bit different than we usually have… It definitely siphoned something off.”

He says the brewery missed an opportunity to capitalize on the hundreds of basketball fans in town – an idea 3rd Planet bartender and rabid Ohio State Basketball Fan David Day says he’s excited about rectifying next year. Day went to the tournament and thought there were opportunities for the brewery to use the captive audience in the arena to their advantage. “I noticed they sold beer,” he said, “that’s something they don’t normally do at a Northwest Florida State College game. I’d love to see us tie in something by getting our beer out there and letting people know while they are purchasing our beer, ‘Hey, we’re right down the road. Stop by on the way back home and get the full experience.'”

3rd Planet Brewing Owner Francis Camosse. Camosse says he noticed changes in patronage patterns at Niceville's largest brewery during the tournament.

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