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.

8 comments
  1. As a Charlotte resident I can tell you that the reason I don’t attend the games that I’m interested in is because I’m not allowed to purchase individual tickets. I only want to go to JCSU games because that’s our local HBCU. You’re forced to buy the tickets to every game. I’m sure that the attendees are older because they are the ones that can afford the ticket books. I suspect that more students and young alumni would support their school’s team if they could buy tickets to only the games they want to see.

    I don’t know what deal was struck but I could have sworn that the CIAA increased their demands substantially during the last negotiations. They aren’t getting the same payment and incentives for this contract that they received the first time around. Charlotte almost lost the tournament because of the new demands but business owners practically rioted.

    The city of Charlotte has no control over game attendance.

  2. I think the CIAA board needs to cut better deals on hotels, food, etc. See what the ACC hotels charge a hour away n G’boro. I also agree selling tickets for games ppl want to see will help with tickets sells. I don’t sit thru all the games , when I attend. I think the CIAA should look at DC.

  3. But you are able to purchase individual tickets. The conference releases single game tickets 2-3 weeks prior to the tournament. While they’re sometimes packaged in “sessions”, you could walk up day-of and get access to only the games you want. You’re not forced to buy tickets to every game. Just saying that’s something I’ve learned over the years too.

  4. I Have Boycott Charlotte last three years due to the escalation of hotel, food and entertainment prices, along with the disrespect by law enforcement of the city. When CIAA first went to Charlotte, hotel prices went up (looked for that to happen) about 10 to 15%. After about 3 years later cost and hospitality went out of control (and Charlotte can control what business will and can charge). All you have to do is check what CIAA people are charged for rooms and events as opposed to what is charged ACC tournament goer’s . Until (It will never happen) there is equality in prices and respect I will boycott. It’s time to move on. Starting here and now … don’t go, this year…

  5. I began attending the CIAA Tournament as a 4th grader way back in the 1960s when it was in Greensboro, and the event has evolved from a tournament with great basketball to a social (party) event with very little emphasis on either basketball or the schools.

    I’ve only met a handful of fans who have ever attended any of the games and many cannot name four CIAA schools.

    As an alum of MEAC schools and a resident of Charlotte, I am loving the hospitality and the feel of the MEAC Tournament in Norfolk. The basketball is good, the city treats us well and there are just enough parties and social events to make it an enjoyable week without being overbearing.

    I hope that the CIAA Tournament gets back to it’s roots of “Basketball First.”

  6. That used to be the case, but the conference got smarter and started selling individual session tickets. So now you don’t have to buy a book of tickets to go to the games.

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