FORT MYERS, Fla. — The 5th-Annual Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off returned this week at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena, but Friday marks the start of a historic change to the lineup.
Universities from all over the country have made their way to Southwest Florida for the basketball tournament pitting top-rated teams against one another.
For the first time in the tourney's history, the Tip-Off hosted its first-ever Women's Division as part of the event.
#14 Maryland took on the unranked DePaul University of Chicago in the first women's match. They are joined by Pitt University and Towson University, also of Maryland, to make up the new field of the Island Division. All have appeared in the NCAA Women's tournament.
Brenda Frese, head coach for Maryland, says their appearance here is a big deal for the team.
"It's about providing opportunities," she said, "and the fact that we could bring all these young women down here to Fort Myers and provide them an incredible experience, both on the court as well as off."
For DePaul, championships are nothing new — the six-time Big East regular season champ head coach Doug Bruno says even though it's their first time in the area, they love a challenge. Their roster includes six veteran players and quality freshmen members.
Bruno, heading into his 37th year with the team, says they got off to a rocky start with two starters injured, every season is a unique journey.
"We've had to retool," he said. "I think we had a strong game against Miami the other night and it put us on the right track. Hopefully we'll be able to build off the Miami win and come out swinging against Maryland."
DePaul managed an upset over Maryland with a fourth-quarter surge; the final score was 76 to 67. Maryland faces Towson Saturday at 11:30 a.m.
The Men's Division games took place before Thanksgiving. Mississippi State beat Utah, 52-49, to take home the Beach Division championship.
Sam Houston took the Palms Division title over South Dakota with a final score of 80-49.
Southwest Florida wins
Regardless of who wins, Southwest Florida comes up trumps when it comes to economic impacts of the tournament.
In 2021, for instance, visitors who came to the area for the Tip-Off and other sporting events spent nearly $72 million in hotels, food, gas, car rentals, and other shopping.
The City of Fort Myers conducted a study on the economic impacts of tourism overall and found that only two percent came to the city for sporting events. Of those, 4% attended the Tip-Off.
The study found that visitors spent $194 million on admission to attractions and events in the whole of 20221.