Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Legacy of the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield lives on with showcase event

By Zachary Baru

While the Tip-Off Classic may no longer be played at the Civic Center in Springfield, this past weekend still saw Division I college basketball action return to downtown.  Although there are many differences to what once was, the legacy of the Tip-Off Classic still lives on, and in the hearts of many basketball fans in Western Massachusetts

It was once an economic driver - brining in a guaranteed sellout crowd of 7,443 to the Civic Center, the building's former fixed-seating capacity.  Hotels were full, restaurants, especially those downtown, filled with patrons staying for the Classic.  Even downtown shops too saw an uptick in customers.  This was not just a show-up and go-home event.  The Tip-Off Classic was Springfield's time of the year, along with enshrinement, to remind the world that this city is the true "birthplace of basketball".  Even a downtown parade preceded the game, a matchup that was typically on national television.  The Tip-Off Classic was traditionally the beginning of the college basketball season, bringing two top-ranked teams to the Springfield Civic Center each Thanksgiving between 1979 and 2005.

Times have changed.  The building is no longer called the Civic Center, of course, and is now called the MassMutual Center.  The venue is not even the top-drawing attraction downtown, it is the location of arena shows for MGM Springfield, downtown's new economic engine.  

But on Saturday, something felt right again.  As viewers nationwide watched on ESPNU or the ESPN App, the Basketball Hall of Fame successfully held the "Basketball Hall of Fame Classic", an ode to the Tip-Off Classic, and a showcase featuring four Division I schools.  Nationally ranked and coming off a Final Four appearance, Florida Atlantic faced St. Bonaventure at 4 p.m., and UMass faced West Virginia during the nightcap at 6:30.  Both games were on ESPNU, and attracted a combined crowd of 7,009, just shy of the MassMutual Center's 7,300 seat capacity for basketball.  Those numbers, however, are a combined crowd.  The official attendances were separated by game, and were 4,264 for UMass-West Virginia, and 2,745 for FAU-St. Bonaventure.

Those attendances may sound smaller than expected, but they aren't so bad when looked at as a whole event in a 7,000-seat arena, nearly combining for the venue's capacity.  Also, this event served it's purpose, it recognized the Tip-Off Classic's history, and brought this to a national television audience.  And to do so on an ESPN network, this is a success in itself.  The Hall of Fame Classic also helped UMass with a crowd of over 4,000 during the winter break, which can be difficult some years on campus with many students at home visiting their families.  

With such a rich local history, having this event in Springfield is still very important to basketball fans, and the local economy itself.  Although the allure of the Tip-Off Classic is not the same, and the tournament has moved down to Uncasville at the Mohegan Sun Arena, having college basketball in Downtown Springfield is still important, and this past weekend's "Classic" was a reminder of all that rich history of college basketball in the birthplace of the game.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and