By Mark F. Gray, Staff Writer, [email protected]
In the interest of full disclosure, yours truly has been the national radio voice of the CIAA championships for eight of the last 10 years. During that time, I’ve had a front seat for the conference’s change in administration, a change of scenery for the football championship game and now the upcoming change of cities for its crown jewel the CIAA Basketball Tournament.
Now that the dust has settled and the warm and fuzziness of Baltimore’s victory in the CIAA Tournament sweepstakes has worn off its time for Charm City to get down to the business of making sure there’s a return on it’s investment. Baltimore has made the financial commitment to ensure the CIAA won’t lose during its three-year run, but the city needs to be mindful of the mistakes that Charlotte made that led to its departure from the Queen City.
In the beginning the relationship between the CIAA and Charlotte was the Jay-Z and Beyonce’ of college sports. A great city – located on the edge of the sunbelt – was paired with a great event with all the amenities to make it a win-win for both parties. Charlotte had a world class NBA venue and opened its arms to the scores of Black fans who were visiting for festivities surrounding the Tournament. It also had a state of the art convention center walking distance from the arena with scores of hotel rooms on the path as well.
The Epicenter became the ultimate gathering spot for those who were visiting the city with anything but basketball on their minds. The Epicenter is a downtown mall and social area which is a combination Harbor Place Power Plant venue that led to the day party phenomenon that shifted the real focus of what the CIAA was trying to accomplish by staging the tournament in Charlotte.
Fans came to town by the thousands, but they came to party and forgot about the basketball. Charlotte, as a city, also forgot its responsibility as a host. The hotels increased room rates exponentially and the service industry became rude and belligerent with the Black discretionary income that was being deposited there. The $50 million impact of the weekend was a civic blessing for a city that was anything but a travel destination during the last week of February previously.
Charlotte embraced the revenue of the CIAA Tournament but took it for granted. As crowds grew so did the impatience with the Black fans that crippled traffic because streets were too small to accommodate them. The long term deal that was brokered by the conference’s previous administration gave the city leverage to treat Black fans with an absence of respect both personally and financially.
The service industry personnel forgot about the commitment to hospitality making it hard to find tables in restaurants and seats at bars. At most establishments in recent years it was easier to get a seat than it was to get service- so fans began staying away.
Baltimore is a basketball town, but for the CIAA Tournament to become a win for both sides those ancillary activities must coexist with the games. In this new world order fan bases traveling for the games solely are dwindling, while others who visit just for social activities are rising. The schools will have to sell the ticket books while the city creates a vehicle to capitalize on those who visit to party.
That marriage must work for Baltimore to make a profit on its CIAA Tournament investment, because HBCU events are as much about the sports as they are about the games themselves.