First Diamond Head Classic gets solid reviews


POSTED: Monday, December 28, 2009

The national TV ratings aren't in yet, but that hasn't stopped organizers of the inaugural Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic from calling the recently completed holiday tournament a complete success.

While attendance at the Stan Sheriff Center for host Hawaii's three games in the eight-team tourney was modest at best—an average of 3,628—ESPN officials are banking that their latest tournament will grow swiftly by word-of-mouth from impressed teams and coaches.

“;We're extraordinarily pleased,”; said Pete Derzis, vice president and general manager of ESPN Regional Television, which owns and operates the event as well as the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. “;We feel like we've accomplished what we set out to do, and that was really to lay a foundation, to make the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic one of the premier events of its kind in the country. Based on the feedback we've gotten, I think we were successful.”;

The DHC executive director, David A.K. Matlin, agreed. He pointed out the reception Hawaiian Airlines gave five teams that flew in on the same charter plane—music and hula dancing directly upon arrival—helped set the tone for the rest of the trip.

“;I spoke to five coaches, and I'd say three or four of them said it's the best tournament they've ever been to,”; Matlin said. “;That's good to hear. There's always some room for some tweaking and some enhancement, but those are the kind of people who are going to go tell the other coaches in the community about the type of event we had.”;

The coaches of UNLV and USC—the teams in the first championship—made it a point to praise the tournament. Lon Kruger did it just minutes after a tough 67-56 loss for his Runnin' Rebels in the Christmas title game.

“;No. 1, the tournament was outstanding,”; Kruger said. “;Folks at the campus here and the (Sheriff) were great ... did a terrific job. I thought it was a very good experience we'll take good memories from, and we'll have to learn from this last game especially.”;

“;It was really run first-class,”; USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. “;Big time. I've been to a lot of tournaments over 30 years, and as far as accommodations and the way it was run, absolutely first-class. I applaud the people here and the University of Hawaii more than you can ever imagine.”;

ESPN covered most expenses for the tournament. Matlin estimated “;we probably weren't too far off”; with expected expenses vs. revenue in the first year. Matlin and Derzis said there were event aspects needing improvement, but nothing major.

“;I think we went into it cognizant that you only get one chance to make a first impression,”; Matlin said, comparing it to the debut of the Hawaii Bowl seven years ago. “;We knew you have to make the investment to make that a solid impression. We feel that investment will serve us well for coaches going back into the basketball community and getting strong teams out here in the future. Then that will pay dividends to us also. Teams have a great time, they talk about it, and the better fields we get, the more people will want to come, the better the business model will be.”;

Next year's field is nearly complete (and already stronger) with Florida State, Mississippi State, Butler, Baylor, Utah, San Diego and UH. An eighth team is still being sought. The tourney dates remain the same as this year; Dec. 22, 23 and 25, with a bye on Dec. 24, the date for the companion Hawaii Bowl.

From Hawaii's perspective, athletic director Jim Donovan considered the attendance reasonable for the first year because of the busy holiday period. More importantly, 10 of the 12 games were televised nationally on ESPN2 or ESPNU.

“;It was 22 hours of people watching that big “;H”; on center court. So that helps the brand of UH athletics,”; Donovan said. “;And when it seems like most of the country experienced a severe snowstorm ... they're seeing people walking around in bathing suits on Waikiki Beach, and shots of Diamond Head and windsurfing. That'll help our state in the long run, too.”;