By Dave Mast

When Tom Jenkins and Dave Schlabach transformed Berlin into a winter wonderland of girls basketball over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, they knew that if they did it the right way, they could have a major impact both on the landscape of girls basketball and on the economy of Berlin during a time when tourism is usually struggling.

Over the past eight winters, Classic in the Country has achieved national recognition as one of the best high school basketball events in the nation, and it has injected millions of dollars into the local economy.

However, the two men realize that in those eight years, they have gone about as far as they can with the generous support of the local community. “The people and businesses of Holmes County have been amazing through their support and volunteering to help us make Classic in the Country a success,” said Schlabach. “We will be forever grateful to everyone who has helped us make our dream a reality.”

The Classic has grown to such proportions that collegiate scouts from near and far make a point of attending, and there is a waiting list of high school teams, not just from Ohio schools but from out of state. Schlabach said that in order to continue to grow the event to even greater heights, the sponsorship and support must come from sources outside the area that can elevate the showcase into the next stratosphere.

“We’ve been talking about taking this to the next level for the past two years, and in order to do that, we are going to have to attach our name to a national sponsor,” said Schlabach.

That possibility took a step toward reality during this year’s Classic, when Under Armour sent two representatives to take notes and see if the event was something on which the company may want to hang its hat. The representatives left very impressed, and with Under Armour’s commitment to branching out into the realm of women’s sports to promote their new product lines in areas like shoes and uniforms, a marriage between the company and the Classic could be beneficial to everyone involved.

Schlabach, Jenkins and a bevy of hosts made sure that the Under Armour representatives were well taken care of, although that isn’t any different from the way they treat all visiting guests.

“This is an amazing event, a real first-class showcase,” said Shawn Casey, Under Armour representative. “This is exactly the kind of thing that we are trying to branch into with our new products, and this is as good of a high school basketball event that we have seen. We will be going back and talking to the powers that be about getting involved.”

Schlabach had six cameras filming this year’s event, and Rob Moser will be putting together a DVD to present to Under Armour, as they present the Classic in the most favorable light possible.

What the Classic has going for it is that it provides unbelievable hospitality to visiting coaches, staff, teams, and other officials, such as those from Under Armour. Between being fed from start to finish, and escorted around the premises like visiting dignitaries, it’s easy to see why the Classic is ranked so highly by so many.

“If a national company as widely recognized and respected as Under Armour gets involved here, it will help solidify what we are trying to accomplish on a national level,” said Schlabach. “That could even turn into sponsorships from other national companies in other areas outside of footwear, clothing and sporting goods. It is the only way that we are going to be able to avoid stagnating.”

Schlabach said that he and Jenkins will travel to the East Coast soon to meet with officials from Under Armour to discuss the possibility of the company becoming the first national sponsor of the Classic, planning to fly to corporate headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland in a few weeks.

Should they secure a sponsorship, Schlabach believes it will free up the Classic staff to take the showcase to even greater heights, but he admits that the sponsorship would not alleviate the need for local community involvement.

“No matter what happens, we will still have to have local sponsorship,” said Schlabach. “That remains vital to our success. Besides, this isn’t our weekend, it is the community’s. The people here have made it what it is today by their support and willingness to get involved.”

So, after five years of trying to get a major player as a sponsor, what has made the biggest difference in this year’s effort? Simply put, getting representatives in to experience the aura and extravagance of the event.

“Until we actually get people in here to see it and experience it, we really didn’t have a chance,” said Schlabach. “We were fortunate enough this year to have them here in person, and we believe that once they experience what we provide, it becomes much easier for them to see what the benefits will be in promoting their brand.”