Why the CIAA Tournament is Trapped in Charlotte

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority recently announced the economic impact of the 2018 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s annual men’s and women’s basketball tournaments at more than $50 million, up from 2017’s $47 million output.

That number puts this year’s tournament in line with its average annual delivery to the City of Charlotte, helping hotels, restaurants, and other businesses within proximity of the tournament to yield big returns from the 100-150,000 patrons visiting from throughout the state and country.

To put the value of the CIAA tournaments in sports business perspective, the 2015 edition generated nearly the same economic impact for CLT that the BIG TEN, ACC and Big 12 basketball tournaments collectively created for their respective host cities during that same year.

The CIAA helps hotels to sell more nights at higher rates (about 1,100 rooms this year). It sells hundreds of thousands of breakfast and dinner plates and millions of gallons of alcohol throughout the city, giving CLT tax revenues that rival or exceed any other major event in the city or region.

These financial gains are why observers and experts advocate for the CIAA to remain in Charlotte. Here’s John Dell from the Winston-Salem Journal:

In covering the CIAA Tournament for the last 22 years, minus the years WSSU tried to move up to Division I, the opinion here is the tournament works in Charlotte. The hotels are in walking distance of the arena and that’s a major plus.

There’s been plenty of speculation about where the tournament would go but I’m not sure there are a lot of cities going after the tournament. If that was the case then there would have been a bidding process by now.

That’s the common narrative held by pro-Charlotte advocates of the CIAA’s presence. But then there’s a narrative from other media outlets and residents which has become increasingly anti-CIAA. A March Charlotte Observer headline, “Is Charlotte tired of the CIAA,” practically lists all of the cultural reasons why the relationship between the conference and the city may run its course in 2020.

During the CIAA tournament in 2015, the Ritz-Carlton sparked controversy by tacking on a 15 percent surcharge for customers in its lounge. The surcharge provoked backlash among some fans, as well as an investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

Another possible deterrent for fans is the violence that has for years marred events held during the CIAA week.

According to the CIAA, games in 2016 had an average attendance of 14,468 for the Tuesday-Saturday basketball tournament. Last year, the average was 13,958, a 3.5 percent decline from the prior year.

Forget how life in the south during the age of Trump could inflame racialized reactions to the tournament and its followers every year, or the CIAA’s obligation as a historically black conference to wield its financial prowess as catalyst for social justice; the bottom line for the tournament’s tenure in CLT is the bottom line; how much is the tournament and its business building, culture enriching presence worth to the city and surrounding Mecklenburg County?

As it stands, not nearly as much as its getting in return.

There’s one statistic set that shows how fans’ priorities, demographics and spending habits have put the CIAA in such a precarious position.

More than 70 percent of the CIAA’s fan base is over 50 years old, which probably means that the vast majority of the 13-14,000 fans who actually attend games are in this age bracket, while the other 86,000 people who come to Charlotte for the tournament are playing the let out. That sub-20,000 in-game attendee number is nowhere near good enough for the CIAA to up its ask to corporate sponsors, but the 100,000 estimated attendee number is more than enough for the CIAA to keep coming back to accommodate fan demand, and to keep getting crumbs from the city as a result.

We, black fans and stakeholders, have put the CIAA in a terrible position. If the conference makes the smart business move and considers leaving Charlotte, it will get more money from hardcore stakeholders while losing much of the brand built by the tournament’s proximity to CLT’s urban amenities. It will also forfeit some corporate partnerships, some media coverage, and most of what drives its brand as an economic impact firecracker — young tourists who never step foot in the arena.

If it stays in Charlotte, it will publicly concede that the CIAA basketball product has no relevance beyond its orbit of nightclubs and day parties, and no feasible strategy to reach younger fans as a result. Staying keeps fans content and outside of the basketball arena — the product which generates the most financial gain for the schools through student scholarship dollars raised by ticket sales and sponsorship dollars.

And isn’t that the story of HBCUs, Black America and everything in between? Make others outside of our community rich while having a good time, but try to do more for ourselves and risk losing our own customer or support base.

Cue the day party.