PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Like all big ideas, this one started small.
It was back in 2010 that sports marketing executive Lea Miller first approached government officials in the Bahamas with the brainstorm of bringing NCAA basketball outside the United States – to help lure visitors to the islands during what is an otherwise slow period.
Five years later, the three-day Battle 4 Atlantis tournament at Nassau’s Paradise Island is on par with the Maui Invitational as one of the premiere early-season events in college basketball. And it’s the only one to host NCAA-sanctioned games outside a U.S.-controlled territory.
Now, the island destination has set its sights on becoming not just a once-a-year hoops enclave but an established American sports outpost.
“This is something that we’ve been working on for a while,” Bahamas sports and culture Minister Daniel Johnson said. “We launched our branch under my jurisdiction called ‘Sports in Paradise.’ That just doesn’t cover basketball. … We’re really going after marquee events, best-in-class to match up with what we think as the Bahamas as a destination is the best in its class.”
The idea is simple: Pairing quality sports events with the Bahamas attractions will not only raise the islands’ profile but bring more visitors and dollars to the country.
The Battle 4 Atlantis brought more than 5,000 fans in during Thanksgiving week for the three-day tournament. The event helped increase hotel capacity from what is typically around 60 percent this time of year to 90 percent, Atlantis Paradise Island president and managing director Paul Burke said.
“It’s a growing market and we want to be in the mix,” Burke said. “We’re so multi-dimensional that people can check a lot of boxes being here. … The convenience of having an event here is extraordinary.”
But the tournament is just a bookend for what is starting to be a crowded sports calendar.
In May, Nassau hosted the IAAF World Relays. Just as the $500,000 temporary Imperial Arena is coming down inside the Atlantis convention center, the islands are now preparing to host the $3.5 million PGA Hero World Challenge at the end of the month. The county will host its second Bahamas Bowl in December. That will be followed by an LPGA event in January.
The schedule is also filing up for 2017, when the Bahamas is scheduled to host the FIFA World Cup of Beach Soccer.
None of that would have happened, though, without the basketball, a little fortunate timing and some special visitors.
By 2012, the Battle 4 Atlantis was already drawing marquee names, featuring perennial powers Duke and Louisville in the championship that year. They would go on to meet that March in the NCAA Elite Eight, with Louisville claiming the national championship.
The following year, the NBA’s Miami Heat hosted its preseason training camp at Atlantis.
“I think it put us on the map in terms of being able to host that level of facility,” Johnson said. “We can convert these facilities into numerous types of events. But it also showed the fan base. … When you had the magnificent three (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) together at one time it was really an enormous event for sports tourism and for the Bahamas.”
They continue to capitalize on that.
The 2016 Battle 4 Atlantis field announced Friday will again feature Louisville, which will be joined by Michigan State, Wichita State and Virginia Commonwealth, all with recent Final Four teams.
Gonzaga coach Mike Few said the tournament has an established reputation now at the highest levels of college basketball.
“I really wanted to see ESPN get involved for our exposure and all of that,” Few said. “Once ESPN jumps in on one of these then you know it’s serious. Then what you see is all these teams lining up. The Dukes, the Louisvilles, the UConns, Michigan, ourselves. We’re all coming down here. I think (Miller’s) done an amazing job building it so quick. And now it’s rivaling Maui. You look back at the history of how what’s happened here, teams have gone on to good things. So hopefully that’s a good barometer for us.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.