MEAC Misfired in Winston-Salem, But Wait and See on Norfolk

Virginian-Pilot columnist Rich Radford today dispatched his latest from Winston-Salem, NC and the MEAC Basketball Tournament. His aim: how much of a better fit the MEAC tournament would be in Norfolk, a partnership the city and the conference will kick-off in 2013.

Just think if the MEAC was playing at 8,500-seat Scope this week: Tonight’s men’s semifinals would have Hampton in the 6 o’clock game, followed by Norfolk State in the nightcap.

The joint would be sold out. There would be ticket scalpers looming on street corners, something the MEAC never had to worry about during its stay at the west end of Tobacco Road.

That’s true, given the outcome of this year’s games. But if Savannah State had advanced as many expected of the MEAC regular season champs, would the tournament be better suited in Georgia?

The thrust of his column is spot on; the MEAC is better suited in a city with broader tourism appeal and local ties to MEAC member schools. But Radford also takes shots at the city of Winston-Salem, and draws unreasonable comparisons to the older, geographically centralized CIAA and its basketball tournament. And for the cherry on top, quotes MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas saying that North Carolina A&T bears some responsibility for the tournament’s lowly attendance numbers by not showing up in greater numbers.

There are multiple levels to the frailty of Radford’s arguments. Most MEAC insiders and supporters recognize the epic fail of the tournament’s spin in Winston-Salem, but give a pass to the conference which tried to capitalize on the presence of would’ve been member Winston-Salem State, newly-added North Carolina Central and MEAC old guard North Carolina A&T when it moved to the city in 2009.  The same are also clear on the shortcomings of the latest relocation to the Scope.

What Winston lacks in night life, the Scope lacks in appeal as a facility.  It’s last major renovations were a new roof in the late 80’s and an audio/visual upgrade four years ago. Northerners from Dover, Baltimore and Washington may enjoy the travel distance to the tournament, but aren’t clamoring for the less-than-glitzy confines of the 44-year-old Scope. And our family south of North Carolina aren’t thrilled by the northern migration of the tournament, either.

And that’s nothing to speak of what really drives a tournament’s success – the likelihood of victory of the teams playing in it. Of the top six seeds in this year’s MEAC Tournament, only one is from Virginia (Norfolk State). The others? Georgia, Florida, Delaware, North Carolina and Maryland.

Any combination outside Norfolk State, Hampton, Coppin State, Morgan State or Howard in the conference semis could make for as many empty bleachers in the Scope next year as the lack of an NC team has dwindled attendance in Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum this year and years past.

There are benefits to the MEAC Tournament returning to Norfolk in 2013, the specific benefit of being down the street from Radford’s place of employment likely being the least of them. But like any other tournament, there will be drawbacks to long-term agreements with any one arena and host city.

Couching criticism of the MEAC conference tournament with perfect hindsight three years after a well-intentioned misfire doesn’t make Norfolk the MEAC’s basketball Shangri-La. It just makes for another suitable distraction on how long it will be until the MEAC arrives in Washington D.C., its ideal place for alumni presence, marketability and growth.