For the University of Alabama basketball team, it’s a bold step as coach Avery Johnson tries to expand its outreach across the state.
For another team, the Huntsville Sports Commission, it’s an opportunity to showcase the city and add a different dimension to its primary task
The 2016 Rocket City Classic will match Alabama against Arkansas State on Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. at the Von Braun Center’s Propst Arena. The game will be telecast live on the SEC Network, which reaches some 75 million homes. Tickets are on sale at the VBC box office and through Ticketmaster. According to promoters, 80 percent of the tickets are $20 or less, geared to making this a family event.
The Huntsville Sports Commission is a partner in the Classic, along with the Birmingham sports marketing company Knight-Eady.
“It’s important that we have some next-level sporting events like this if we’re going to take our city to new heights as far as being a sports destination,” said Ralph Stone, executive director of the Huntsville Sports Commission. “Anything we can do to create some excitement, we want to do that.”
“It’s important that we have some next-level sporting events like this if we’re going to take our city to new heights as far as being a sports destination. Anything we can do to create some excitement, we want to do that.”
The Sports Commission is a two-person staff, with Stone joined by assistant director Gina Kirkland. Their work is overseen by a board of directors and their work is bolstered by a team of volunteers who help administer various events.
The primary goal is to bring into the city events that provide a boost to the economy from the visitors – “heads in beds” is a Sports Commission mantra – in hotel, restaurant, retail spending and taxes collected.
Since the Sports Commission was founded in 1990, it has yielded almost $115 million in economic impact to the city.
“We love to have people come in and spend the night and stay, but the Rocket City Classic will also have an economic impact for our city, to bring 7,000 people to a basketball game in downtown Huntsville on a Wednesday night,” Stone said. “With all that’s going on then – the Tinsel Trail and Christmas shopping and all the restaurants – it should be a good event. Come early, do a little shopping, have dinner. It’s a great opportunity.”
With the game broadcast on the SEC Network, an ESPN partner, more attention will be brought to the city as various pre-taped scenes from the area will be interspersed in the coverage. Said Stone, “That’s a big plus any time you can have that exposure and showcase our community.”
According to Mark Whitworth, the chief operating officer of Knight-Eady, the Rocket City Classic will include educational and charitable aspects involving the Alabama basketball team. The team will come to Huntsville on Monday and do some touring that will “be an educational experience with the rich history of Huntsville,” said Whitworth. There will also be a community service element to the trip on Monday and Tuesday morning.
This is Alabama’s first basketball game in Huntsville since Dec. 8, 1999, when the Tide played Chattanooga. Auburn was last here on Dec. 21, 1989, and Stone said he hopes this can be a “revolving” event, with Auburn playing in Huntsville in alternate years.
The Von Braun Center, home to the Huntsville Havoc pro hockey team and the University of Alabama in Huntsville hockey team, has hosted a number of other stand-alone events, including the NHL Nashville Predators’ very first exhibition game, an NBA exhibition and the Mayor’s Cup basketball game between UAH and Alabama A&M. Alabama played a baseball game here as recently as 2015.
Recently, the popularity of high school basketball in the area has brought Propst Arena in to the mix. Last season’s meeting between state powers J.O. Johnson and Lee High Schools was shifted to the VBC and sold out. A high school doubleheader involving the new Mae Jemison High, Lee, Spain Park and Sacred Heart is set for Nov. 14 at the VBC and the finals of the annual AL.com Classic have been moved there for the first time.
“This started with Coach Johnson’s vision to take the program to different areas of the state,” Whitworth said. “The Huntsville Sports Commission embraced the idea and said we’d love to make this happen. Without that civic engagement, we wouldn’t be here.”
“I’m really passionate about Huntsville,” Johnson continued. “I’m passionate about this community that’s why I felt so strongly about exposure our team to Huntsville and the surrounding areas.
“We want to see the arena basically painted in crimson … and have the type of enthusiasm and energy that’s going to make us want to come back again,” Johnson said. “The 2017-18 season is up for grabs. We’re hoping this is such a success that one of the first things out of our mouths and in our thoughts is, ’We need to go back to Huntsville.’”
For more information about the Rocket City Classic, or to purchase tickets, visit ticketmaster.com.
Mark McCarter is a contributor to Huntsville City Blog