With March Madness approaching, even the most die-hard horse racing people in Kentucky and elsewhere will briefly divert their attention from the Derby trail to the longshots and buzzer beaters of the NCAA tournament.
But who said you can't enjoy hoops and horses at the same time?
Racetrack Emerald Downs may be creating the perfect way to do so.
Preparations are underway to build at least 30 basketball courts – complete with specially-designed goals and backboards – to host a 3-on-3 tournament at the Seattle-area track this summer. The project is the brainchild of Emerald Downs VP of Operations Bob Fraser.
“There's just a synergy between horse racing and other sports,” said Fraser, a youth basketball coach. “The gambler likes sports in general. And from the youth level on up through college, the Northwest has become kind of a hotbed for basketball.”
In fact, Fraser came up with his idea after attending Hoopfest in Spokane, Wash. last year. The largest event of its kind on the planet, the 3-on-3 tourney attracted 27,865 players and 7,090 teams in 2012. Those teams played 14,000 games on more than 450 basketball courts that covered 42 city blocks.
“Watching volunteers set up the courts, I was amazed. The whole city of Spokane gets transformed into this basketball mecca,” Fraser said. “I asked myself why don't we have an event like this in Western Washington?”
Thanks to Fraser, the city of Auburn soon will. After getting a thumbs-up from Emerald Downs ownership, Fraser set up committees and rallied the community to support his idea. The inaugural EmD3-On-3 tournament is scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 10 and 11 in the north parking lot of the racetrack. Nearly all of the 30 half-courts already have business sponsors. One local company is designing the backboards. Other businesses will support a music stage, a beer garden, and catering. The tournament, which has an entry fee of $120 per team, will also benefit a yet-to-be-named local charity.
“Things are coming together,” Fraser said. “It's very exciting, and I'm very optimistic.”
Of course, Fraser also sees an opportunity for Emerald Downs to promote its Thoroughbred racing. The tournament will coincide with racing cards on both days, and everyone who registers will be given, at a minimum, free admission and programs. For the basketball players and their fans, there will be plenty of down time between games to check out the horses and place a bet. Emerald Downs also chose mid-August for a reason: the following weekend the track hosts its premier event, the Grade 3 Longacres Mile.
“There could be four thousand people each day at the tournament, and we're exposing them to racing,” Fraser said. “And oh by the way, the next weekend is our biggest weekend of the year.”
Fraser expects the inaugural EmD3-on-3 to be about the size of Spokane's Hoopfest when it began in 1990 – around 500 teams and 2,000 players. Each court will host 16-team brackets, with divisions ranging from third graders to over-40 adults and games at both recreational and competitive levels. See the tournament's website or Facebook page for more info.
Fraser hopes this first event will spark interest and attract even more people next year.
“These things grow. The key is doing it right,” said Fraser. “We're doing everything professionally, so when people come, they feel like they got a value out of it.”
The community and the racetrack also see value, if Spokane's Hoopfest is a predictor. Officials there estimate the event now generates $38 million a year for the local economy. And from a marketing standpoint for Emerald Downs – a track that already boasts a fairly young demographic (two-thirds of patrons are 18-49) – horses and hoops might just prove a winning combination.
“Our demographic is younger, and we've always been investing in the future,” Fraser said. “I'm not aware of any other racetrack that's done this. It just makes sense to me.”
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