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‘Youth are a huge part’: Executive director Riley Stockton says getting kids back on the court key for Hoopfest’s resurgence

June 6, 2022 Updated Mon., June 6, 2022 at 5:59 p.m.

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

The spectator aspects of basketball in Spokane are certainly at a fever pitch, as witnessed at colleges, high schools and NCAA Tournament events throughout the Inland Northwest.

But participation in the sport is certainly a concern, even in Hooptown USA.

Growing basketball in all forms in the Inland Northwest is the main goal of new Hoopfest executive director Riley Stockton. But as he and Hoopfest founder and board of directors chair Rick Betts well know, the pandemic took its toll, especially on numbers of youths participating.

Hoopfest, in fact, ballooned to as many as 6,000 teams before the COVID-19 pandemic. After a two-year hiatus, Stockton predicts it will be leaner this year with about 3,500 teams playing on roughly 320 courts. Registration for the event ended on Sunday.

“Those are still pretty good numbers,” he said Friday after expressing in April his hopes to have 4,500 entered. “We maybe overestimated the number of players returning from COVID. But we’re basically in the same spot (with participation numbers) as Bloomsday for their race. It’s a little bit of a slow trek back for the first year or two.”

In April, Stockton said youths are a “huge part” of were he wants to take the organization.

“I was extremely lucky to be in AAU and Hoopfest, and what it taught me,” he said. “Every great lesson in life I’ve learned through sports. Whether it’s from a coach or losing a tough game and learning how you act after that. Those are the kind of things you learn growing up in sports, and specifically in basketball.”

The decline, Stockton said last week, can also be attributed to specialization of athletes to certain sports. He was a standout football and basketball player at Ferris, and juggled which to play in college when he was at Ferris High School.

“Right now there is a little bit of specialization that is happening. But I think you can learn a lot playing multiple, different sports,” he says.

The proliferation of screens – namely computer games – is a contributing factor, as well.

“That wasn’t really an option for us,” the 29-year-old said. “There are different outlets for kids to go with, but I think sports, specifically basketball, is the best route for sure.”

He sees the numbers dropping in terms of youth participation in basketball – and all sports for that matter – and vows to find ways to stop that decline.

“There are a lot of options for kids, even more than when I was growing up,” he offers. “But I don’t think there are better lessons in life you learn than playing in a team sport. You have to learn how to communicate, how to succeed, how to lose, how to compete – all those different things. To me, it’s vital that our youth numbers grow and that is something our organization focuses on – especially women’s basketball.”

Hoopfest, where players are placed in brackets based on age and ability level, is a good starting point, he says.

“You have spectators cheering you on, and you are part of an event where a high level of basketball is being played. That was always so much fun for me. I want other people to have that feeling too.”

The lack of girls playing basketball is particularly alarming, he said. Hoopfest’s AAU program had no girls’ teams in grades three through six in the 2021-22 season, and he comes from an era in which Angie Bjorklund and Briann January excelled in Spokane (University High School and Lewis and Clark High School before they played major college basketball at Tennessee and Arizona State, respectively. January currently plays for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

“When I was growing up, the women’s basketball in this city was always a lot better than the men’s basketball,” Stockton remembers. “There were players going to much higher schools compared to the guys. To grow that is a huge objective of ours for sure.”

Hooptown USA isn’t just a fancy slogan, it’s a way of life for people such as Stockton and his organization.

As the largest 3-on-3 tournament in the world, a weekend in the streets of Spokane provides a $47 million impact to the community as 250,000 people flock downtown. In past years, you’d find some 420 courts, 460 brackets, 24,000 players, 6,000 teams and 3,000 volunteers.

But that was pre-pandemic. Of the 3,500 teams expected this year, Stockton says female participation is down considerably on all levels. “We are seeing this in our youth program, but even our adult female divisions are smaller compared to what they normally are. It’s those two that took the biggest hit.”

Betts has come full circle in his 30-plus years with the organization. His oldest son was a third-grader for the first Hoopfest in 1990; in 2022 he has a grandson in third grade participating.

“Young kids just love that weekend,” he says. “It’s just a fun weekend for them.”

“There is a family reunion aspect of Hoopfest,” Betts continues, fully aware those get-togethers were missed dearly during the pandemic cancellations of 2020 and 2021. “It’s a time people come back to Spokane whether they are playing or not. The socializing in groups within an enormous group activity is a bit of a re-birth as well.”

After two years without Hoopfest – a span of 1,090 days – Betts knows it’s just a matter of time before the magic returns.

“Part of Hoopfest is the sport, but another aspect of Hoopfest is just participating in any sport,” he stresses. “You see the event and it’s just a great time whether you are playing or not. You are kind of caught up in the energy of Hoopfest, and I think that propels you to do other things.”

A promising sign to both of the organization’s leaders is the use of community courts they’ve erected in parks across Spokane. In particular, the response to the new courts as part of the Riverfront Park renovation have been encouraging.

“We’ve always had the community courts, and that kind of started Hooptown USA,” said Stockton. “I love driving past the Riverfront Park courts and seeing them always full. I don’t think there is anything that makes me happier than when I drive by one of our courts and see people playing on them.”

“I drive by several of the courts, and I have noticed this spring the way they have been full of kids and adults getting ready for Hoopfest,” Betts added.

The annual tournament is only part of what the organization does year-around. Their AAU program for youth has been going for 32 years. It features a league season with 79 total teams from third through eighth grade, including 17 girls teams in grades seven and eight. It also hosts three annual tournaments – Boo Ball, Santa Slammer and Shootout Classic.

“Hooptown USA is huge for us to really stake our claim,” says Stockton. “We have so many quality events and teams – basically every college team in this area is successful. Having Hoopfest be a big part of that is awesome.”

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