Over five weeks last year this city hosted three basketball tournaments, including the Atlantic Coast Conference men and the NCAA East Regional.
Pretty prestigious events — even though the Division II tournament that preceded it brought more fans and had a larger financial impact.
So it’s no surprise that this once booming town — battered lately by its flailing banks and falling home prices — is warmly welcoming the return of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and its part-basketball tournament, part-giant reunion for graduates and friends of its 10 historically Black colleges and universities.
“It’s a pretty darn good deal to be able to do business with these folks,” said Mike Crum, chief operating officer of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.
It’s because this tournament is unlike any other, where basketball is often secondary. While the first two of 18 men’s and women’s games were scheduled for Tuesday night, the CIAA brings thousands of people to the city who will never step foot inside the arena.
They’re coming for the celebrity-hosted parties, fashion shows or perhaps what’s billed as the second largest fan experience behind only the NCAA Final Four at the downtown convention center. They’re also gobbling up hotel rooms to attend numerous concerts and cooking shows.
Charlotte tourism officials said more than 181,000 fans attended events associated with last year’s tournament and spent $20.5 million.
“For every person that buys a ticket, there’s at least one person whose coming to Charlotte who didn’t buy a ticket,” Crum said. “They’re just here for the fun, everything that happens outside the arena. That’s what makes the CIAA different from every other conference college basketball tournament in the country.”
Behind the CIAA is its strong-willed, pull-no-punches commissioner, Leon Kerry. He secured lucrative financial guarantees from Charlotte after moving the event from Raleigh in 2006. Kerry and Charlotte officials agreed last spring on a three-year extension that keeps the tournament here through at least 2011.
Despite the recession, Kerry said he’s renewed all his corporate sponsors and added Nationwide Insurance. He said ticket sales are not far off from last year. All of Time Warner Cable Arena’s luxury suites are sold out and most of the high-priced, lower-bowl tickets have been purchased.
“Am I concerned? Absolutely,” Kerry said of the economy. “I’d be foolish if I wasn’t concerned. Do I think we’ll be close to where we were last time? Absolutely, we have a tough work ethic here.”
Much of that work has been to get more fans to actually see the games. Many have avoided the basketball altogether or watched from a party on ESPN Classic, which televises the men’s games, making the CIAA the only Division II league with a national TV deal.
“The last three years we talked about getting people to Charlotte. Now we’re trying to bring the people back into the arena with great basketball, great mini-concerts,” Kerry said. “We’re trying to get the fans involved in the CIAA fun.”
Kerry, in his 19th year running the nation’s oldest league of historically Black schools, is the center of attention this week. And he clearly likes his status as one of the top dogs of the NCAA’s lower tier — even if he’s had to deal with a major upheaval in his league.
Lincoln (Pa.) and Chowan will join the conference next year to replace North Carolina Central and Winston-Salem State, the latest of several former league schools to join Division I.
But many have struggled to raise enough money to make it work. Winston-Salem State chancellor Donald Reaves is contemplating his next move after the state university system denied his request to dramatically raise student fees to help pay for the transition. Reaves, who recently fired athletic director Chico Caldwell, declined an interview request.
But Kerry was adamant he’d welcome Winston-Salem State back to the CIAA. Some of that school’s older fans are expected to be in Charlotte this week even though their basketball teams won’t. In the past few years folks have been seen walking around in the gear of now-departed schools like North Carolina A&T and even Kerry’s alma mater, Norfolk State.
“They had to build a new fan base, a new alumni base, because those fans will never fit in wherever they go,” Kerry said. “They always belong to the CIAA.”
That uniqueness is why Anthony Hamilton, rapper T.I. and the Neville Brothers are expected to be on hand this week. It’s why comedian Steve Harvey will be hosting his radio show here. And it’s why in these bleak times Charlotte is thrilled to have the CIAA back.
“There’s magic in the CIAA,” Crum said, “on a variety of levels.”
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