Photo by Eric Schultz
The signs taped to the doors told the story. The Rocket City Classic was sold out.
Fans were trolling the sidewalks 1 ½ hours before tipoff, hoping against hope someone might have an extra ticket to sell. A flood of crimson was pouring into the Von Braun Center. Huntsville was transforming a mere regular season basketball game into a major event.
However, Wednesday night’s Rocket City Classic between The University of Alabama and Arkansas State, presented by the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, was to be measured a success by much more than the demand for tickets.
And as for that incorrect reference to term something the “first annual,” no need to nitpick further. The Rocket City Classic is most likely here to stay.
The sellout crowd, the 67-52 Alabama victory and the enthusiasm that flooded the building were all plenty of testimony to the success. Tide Coach Avery Johnson said once Huntsville got into it, “We took off like a rocket.” But listen to four of the witnesses:
“I want to say a big ‘Roll Tide’ to all our fans and supporters who came out to see us in Huntsville. Wow!”
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle: “We have some great collegiate sports teams in this town already with UAH and Alabama A&M and Oakwood. But having The University of Alabama team come here, spend three days here, get to know Huntsville by going through the Space & Rocket Center, getting to view what we have here, getting involved in our community with the Boys & Girls Club.
“Then, to play a game up here against a very good team, with the sellout we had, it shows there’s a lot of interest in sports here and it’s a great way to let the nation know about our city.”
The SEC Network, which reaches 75 million homes nationwide, telecast the game live.
Arkansas State coach Grant McCasland: “I thought atmosphere-wise it was a great event. A really cool place to play. It was put on well. There was definitely home court advantage for those guys.”
Alabama coach Avery Johnson: “I want to say a big ‘Roll Tide’ to all our fans and supporters who came out to see us in Huntsville. Wow!”
“When we first started strategically planning this game, there were a lot of question marks and, man, the city of Huntsville, they answered a lot of questions. Number one, they really love Alabama basketball. They love basketball in general. So the first thing, I want to say thanks to the city of Huntsville and all the volunteers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Mark Whitworth, COO of Knight-Eady, the event promoter: “From our perspective we were just thrilled with the way the city embraced the vision Coach Johnson had for this event. And it was really a collaborative effort, starting with the Huntsville Sports Commission, the mayor’s office, the corporate community that really stepped up. It was just a great, great environment for college basketball.
“Huntsville has so much to offer. It’s a unique city that’s rich in history on the international stage, and we had the opportunity to showcase the city to the team beginning Monday with the tour of the Space & Rocket Center. It was a great combination of events culminating with a great environment here. We look forward to the future.”
Whitworth said there has already been “informal conversation” between his group and The University of Alabama and the Huntsville Sports Commission and that some dates have already been placed “on hold” with the Von Braun Center for a 2017 game.
Because Johnson initiated the idea for the event, Alabama would likely return next year though Whitworth said “long-term” it would not be “exclusive” to the Tide, opening the door for a future Auburn appearance.
“I think we all have that vision of continuing this and making the Rocket City Classic a major college, first-class event around the holiday season,” Whitworth said.
Read more about the inaugural Rocket City Classic: