This weekend marks the penultimate year in the run of the CIAA tournament in Charlotte, the city’s largest annual event. But local officials say they’ll try to get the event back after its 2021-2023 stint in Baltimore.To do this, leaders say Charlotte will have to address issues such as hotel prices, safety and scholarship contributions.
The CIAA tournament provides a consistent boost in sales for area hotels and restaurants, so its loss will result in a major hit to local tourism. There have been signs in recent years that the CIAA buzz in Charlotte may have waned, such as weaker ticket sales, so relocating could provide a fresh boost of energy that drives enthusiasm for the premier event moving forward, officials say.
“Charlotte has really helped us create a template for what we need and what we look for in a bid city,” CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams told reporters Monday morning at the Charlotte Convention Center.
Charlotte has hosted the tournament since 2006, and its economic impact has topped $50 million in recent years. The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the country’s oldest African-American sports conference, relocated its headquarters to Charlotte from Hampton, Va., in 2014.
Last summer, the CIAA said it was opening up the bidding process to find the next host city of its annual marquee men’s and women’s basketball tournaments for 2021. In January, the CIAA said it would move its annual event to Baltimore for 2021-2023.
“We see this as an opportunity to grow our footprint,” McWilliams said Monday. (The CIAA has said it will keep its 14-employee headquarters office in Charlotte despite the Baltimore move.)
Nine of the conference’s 13 member schools are in North Carolina, meaning CIAA schools up north — including in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania — have been traveling a long distance to attend the CIAA tournament in Charlotte each year. Moving the event is a way to better serve those fans, McWilliams has said.
The downside, she added is that “we might lose some fans who don’t want to go up (north).”
What to fix
Hosting the event in Charlotte has come with challenges.
CIAA Board Chair James Anderson told WFAE in January that price gouging at Charlotte hotels has become an issue for some fans in recent years. In a future bid, Charlotte will have to work to lower prices on hotels to stay competitive, McWilliams said.
There have also been signs of slower ticket sales in recent years.
Like it did in 2018, the CIAA this year will be roping off sections of the Spectrum Center for the championship game Saturday. McWilliams said that the upper bowl of the arena will be roped off this year and next year unless there is a sellout. When it’s at its new capacity for the finals, the roughly 20,000-seat Spectrum Center will hold up to 10,000 fans.
“Our goal really is to pack the lower bowl of the building,” McWilliams said.
In past tournaments, the CIAA has allowed schools the flexibility to handle their own ticket sales, McWilliams said. But this year, the CIAA board decided to sell all tickets at the same price “so there wouldn’t be price wars amongst the institutions.” Fans can go online to upgrade their tickets to sideline seating.
Single game tickets can be purchased online at Ticketmaster.com.
James Mitchell, at-large Charlotte city council member, has said that Charlotte needs to prioritize lowering hotel rates and providing robust scholarships to student athletes if it wants to keep the tournament.
The city provides about $1.56 million in scholarships to CIAA member schools each year, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the city’s visitor arm. By the time the tournament wraps up here in 2020, Charlotte will have provided $17 million in scholarships, CRVA CEO Tom Murray said.
Mitchell said that successfully hosting the CIAA tournament has helped Charlotte land other large-scale events, such as the 2012 Democratic National Convention and this year’s NBA All-Star Game.
“If there’s a way we can break the tradition … the CIAA has never gone back to a city (it left) … it would be a great win for Charlotte,” Mitchell said.
In years past, the weekend’s unsanctioned events have been marred with violence.
In 2014, for instance, during tournament week, a man and a woman were shot in the leg during an uptown hotel party featuring Sean “Diddy” Combs. In 2017, rapper Young Dolph was the target of a hail of gunfire in Charlotte during the CIAA tournament.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will continue to work to curtail crime during the tournament’s roughly 100 unsanctioned parties and events, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney told reporters Monday.
Last year’s tournament came and went without any major disturbances, however, Putney said.
“The CIAA’s been good to Charlotte. We’re going to make sure that it’s as successful and safe as we possibly can,” Putney said.
The CIAA’s 24-game tournament begins at Bojangles’ Coliseum on Monday evening and will wrap up with the championship semifinals and finals at the Spectrum Center on Friday and Saturday.
The tournament also features non-basketball events, including free, two-day Fan Fest at the Charlotte Convention Center in Halls A & B from noon-8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. A schedule of CIAA events can be found online at ciaatournament.org.
The CRVA estimates the tournament brought 150,000 people to Charlotte in 2018. That year, more than three-quarters of attendees traveled to Charlotte for the weekend and 84 percent of overnight attendees stayed in area hotels.
The CIAA tournament had an estimated economic impact of $50.5 million last year, according to the CRVA.
“We really cherish this event and hope that we can welcome it back in the future here,” Murray said.
This story originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.