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Business sponsors allow City of Palms Classic basketball tournament to thrive

City of Palms

The City of Palms Classic, a national-caliber, high school basketball tournament, returns after a one-year, pandemic-caused hiatus. It does so with renewed support from the Southwest Florida business community.

Classic Basketball Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, organizes the 16-team tournament and the other games and events that go along with it every week before Christmas. It cannot do so without sponsorships and advertising; they are crucial to cover airfare, rental car, hotel, arena rental and other expenses for the visiting teams.

The tournament tipped off at 2 p.m. Friday at Florida Southwestern State College’s Suncoast Credit Union Arena. It concludes with the championship game, scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Wednesday.

One out of every seven current NBA players has played in the Classic. This year’s tournament has 14 of the nation’s top 50-ranked teams, and 19 of ESPN’s top-60 ranked senior players.

John Naylor, in his eighth year as executive director of the 49-year-old event, began his tenure with an annual budget of about $240,000.

This year, it has eclipsed $400,000.

Flipping through the pages of the 120-page tournament program shows a litany of advertisements from Southwest Florida businesses. They pay big money for the recognition.

Culligan, the bottled water company, returns as the title sponsor.

“Donnie’s budget for team, travel, hotels, rental cars and meals is about $180,000,” Naylor said, referring to Donnie Wilkie, who selects the tournament’s field. The balance goes to renting the arena, paying officials, staff, security and other expenses.

This year, there are teams from Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., in the main field.

A few years ago, Classic Basketball changed its formula in paying for the visiting teams’ travel. It used to pay for all the flights.

“We stopped buying airplane tickets probably five years ago,” Naylor said. “We provide a $2,000 to $7,000 stipend, depending on how far they’re coming from. If you’re flying from Atlanta, your tickets cost less than if you’re coming from Phoenix.”

That kind of money doesn’t come out of thin air, and the pandemic canceling last year’s tournament packed the perfect punch of health and financial uncertainties.

This year, the tournament is following pandemic guidelines set forth by FSW. Face masks are recommended.

The sponsors regrouped, too. But a national rental car company dropped its “presenting sponsorship” status this year. In stepped Millennium Physician Group to replace it.

Fort Myers attorney Joe North gives $25,000 a year to Classic Basketball as the second presenting sponsor.

“That is not small,” North said of the amount. “I was born and raised in Fort Myers and went through the public schools here. Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve had this tournament. I’ve watched it grow. During that time, I have seen how important it is for pretty much everybody in the community. Every demographic. Every age. Every neighborhood. Our community. We run from Sarasota all the way down to Naples. This is important to everybody.

“We get to go out and celebrate with one another,” he said. “Not just the holidays, but with basketball. And it just happens.”

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