‘Pump up the economy’: Elite college women’s hoop tourney draws 25,000 fans to Wilmington

The multipurpose sports complex opened in 2019 and is home for the Blue Boats, the 76ers minor league team. The facility expects 2 million visitors and users this year.

Listen 1:20
A player throws a basketball inbounds to her teammate during a basketball game.

La Salle inbounds the ball against George Mason in Thursday's game of the Atlantic 10 tournament in Wilmington. (Cris Barrish/WHYY

Standing outside Wilmington’s Chase Fieldhouse on Thursday morning, coach Faythe Daniels and her Charter School of New Castle girls middle school team could hardly contain their glee.

They’d be watching big time college women’s basketball, with Philadelphia’s La Salle University facing George Mason University (Va.) in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

At stake for the winner of the 15-team Division I tourney is one of 68 coveted spots in the upcoming NCAA tournament. But for Daniels and her squad, and the city of Wilmington, the event that runs through Sunday is a title unto itself.

“We just completed our season and we’re just using this championship as a celebration as well as just to promote going to college,’’ said Daniels, the school counselor. “These girls like to play basketball and it’s just showing what a student athlete looks like on the court and just to have some fun.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Faythe Daniels and a group of students pose for a photo outside of an arena.
Faythe Daniels (foreground) brought her middle school team to the tournament Thursday. La Salle and George Mason battle for a rebound Thursday. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

As for the event being held in Wilmington, just a few miles from her school, Daniels said, “It’s a great thing. I’m glad they brought it.”

The event is being held at the sparkling multi-purpose sports facility in an area that is steadily transforming from an industrial strip once dominated by scrapyards, vehicle collision shops, used tire centers, and an oil recycling facility.

Now it’s where the Philadelphia 76ers’ G-League team the Blue Coats play their home games. But the space is also used for youth sports training and for local, regional, and national tourneys for club soccer and lacrosse, as well as high school basketball games and other contests. In 2019 NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson visited as part of an event promoting historically Black colleges and universities.

An aerial view of basketball players practicing before a game.
La Salle and George Mason do pregame drills. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

The four-year-old facility had 1.5 million visitors and users last year and is on track for 2 million this year, said Steve Cavalier, general manager of the fieldhouse and BPG Sports, which operates the venue.

Cavalier said he expects about 25,000 fans to attend the tournament that concludes Sunday. Teams are coming from as far north as Massachusetts, as far west as Illinois, and as far south as North Carolina.

“It’s huge,” Cavalier said before Thursday morning’s game as fans streamed into the fieldhouse. “It brings a ton of people to the city. Every hotel room is sold out. They’re eating at the restaurants. They’re going out to the bars.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Steve Cavalier poses for a photo. Behind him is a basketball court.
Steve Cavalier of BPG Sports says the fieldhouse will have 2 million users and visitors this year. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

He noted that Saturday’s semifinals will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network and ESPNU will televise Sunday’s final.

The Atlantic 10 tourney isn’t nearly as prominent as the BMW Golf Championship held in August that brought 130,000 spectators to Wilmington Country Club over four days. But Cavalier said “it’s a big big deal having an elite, high-level women’s basketball tournament’’ in Wilmington. “We’re talking about millions of dollars that this will generate just in a couple of days.’’

Sweatshirts and shirts hang on clothing racks.
Fans have a choice of plenty of merchandise. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Tygee Washington of Westchester, N.Y., drove down for the day to watch because his sister, Niki, is George Mason’s assistant coach. He brought his son Tygee, Jr. and daughter Tristyn.

“I think it’s great,’’ Washington said of having the tournament in a smaller city like Wilmington, which has 70,000 residents. “Pump up the economy for the day or week.”

Tygee Washington poses with his children, Tygee Jr. and Tristyn.
From right to left, Tygee Washington brought his children Tygee Jr. and Tristyn. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Frank Benton of Philadelphia has been to Blue Coats games and came to Wilmington because his sister Kim Brady is director of operations for La Salle’s team.

Benton said the Chase Fieldhouse benefits the community in myriad ways, beyond big events.

“You build it and they will come,’’ he said. “All the kids get a chance to get off the street and play their sport of choice. It’s a nice venue.”

Inside the 2,500-seat arena Thursday before the first of four games, the Green Machine band from George Mason belted out music, taking turns with Delaware’s Smyrna High School, which represented La Salle.

Coaty, the Blue Coats mascot, clowned with groups of young students from a handful of Delaware schools in attendance.

The Blue Coats' mascot Coaty, a blue horse, sits in the stands. Behind are numerous students and other members of the audience seated in the stands.
Coaty clowned with young students in the stands. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

On the court, La Salle guard Amy Jacobs, a native of Australia, took a break from warming up to say she was delighted to be playing less than 40 miles from campus.

“I love it,’’ Jacobs said over the din of the bands and the cheers of fans. “I think it’s a huge advantage to be so close to home. We don’t have all the struggles that come with traveling on the road. So now we’re down the road. It’s great.”

Asked if eighth-seeded La Salle would triumph over ninth-seeded George Mason,’’ Jacobs didn’t hesitate.

“Oh yeah,’’ she said.

Though only a few hundred fans were on hand for the morning game, raucous cheers filled the arena during the hard-fought contest and the bands kept up their steady beat.

Players on opposing teams jump up towards a basketball in the air on the court during a game.
La Salle and George Mason battle for a rebound Thursday. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

In the end, George Mason prevailed, 64-58.

But for Wilmington, the outcome of the game isn’t the only score that matters.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal