Had it not been for the nationwide meltdown of Southwest Airlines, the King Cotton Holiday Classic basketball tournament might have gotten five stars across the board.
"I think we helped ourselves with King Cotton in help making Pine Bluff a safe, family-friendly destination that adds to the quality of life for the city," said Ryan Watley, CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, which helps organize and put together the tournament. "There's not much more that you can ask for."
Nothing perhaps – except for the Southwest Airlines technical problems that saw thousands of flights canceled – including several that team members would have been on to get to Arkansas and the tournament.
"We can always [...] do without a Southwest debacle that challenged the critical thinking skills of the organizers," Watley said. "We got through it, so while it may have been mayhem inside the conference room, you couldn't tell it in the arena. Workers, volunteers, the concessions – it all came together, and we were successful in putting together a first-class tournament."
Sixteen teams were selected to be in the tournament, but two teams were not able to get here because of the flight cancellations.
Joseph McCorvey, executive director of the Pine Bluff Convention Center where the tournament was held, said getting all of the teams delivered to Pine Bluff was indeed a challenge.
"There were a lot of disruptions," McCorvey said. "I was on the phone for seven hours one day trying to arrange alternative transportation."
That meant getting charter buses in place for several teams to use.
"You can imagine," he said. "We were frantic trying to get them here. We incurred quite a bit of additional expense. Charter buses average $6,500 but go as high as $13,000. We'll have to eat some of that, as far as the convention center goes. But we had to take care of the situation."
McCorvey said he was in the process of asking Southwest Airlines for reimbursement for the canceled flights.
"I wrote a letter to the Southwest Airlines CEO who has said the airline would make whole its customers who incurred other expenses," McCorvey said. "We have asked for $50,000 for the airline ticket refunds and added expenses. Hopefully, we'll pick that up."
McCorvey said the three-day tournament that ran Dec. 27-29 saw a total of some 10,000 fans, which was comparable to last year's tournament, and he predicted the convention center would break even.
"It takes about three months for all this to come together in terms of the financing," McCorvey said, adding that sponsorships are the driving force. "I'll just have to wait and see."
Watley said the Pine Bluff tournament, which was resurrected in 2018 after its 1983-99 run ended, gets top marks from all involved.
"People from across the country [gave] us rave reviews about how they enjoyed themselves," Watley said. "There are other tournaments, ones that receive big money from sponsors like Nike and Adidas, but this is by far the best simply because we do such a good job of hospitality. The fans in the arena provide the great atmosphere. I'm proud that so many people pull together for this."
Sheri Storie, executive director of the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission, said it is still a little early to determine if the tournament added to the tax receipts collected by restaurants and hotels.
"What I do know is that it was a very positive event for the city," she said. "Other than the travel issues with a couple of teams, everyone enjoyed it and had a great time."