• Jon Olangi

The Inevitable Departure Of The CIAA Tournament From Charlotte

CIAA fans navigate the Epicenter in 2013 | Photo courtesy of Epicenter NC

In just a few days, thousands of people will begin to file into our beloved city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Whether flying in from Pennsylvania, or driving down from Winston Salem, North Carolina, come February the 28th, the city will be packed with alumni, party promoters, musicians, radio personalities, influencers, and even celebrities, for the final CIAA tournament weekend in Charlotte for the foreseeable future.

Like in previous years, the most important question still remains; how many of those people will actually attend the basketball games where young, black, student athletes will be competing to win a trophy for their schools—many of which are HBCU's?

Since 2006, somewhere between the last week of February and the first week of March, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association(CIAA) has been hosting their annual men’s and women’s basketball tournament in the heart of downtown Charlotte. Come 2021, the tournament will have a new home as the CIAA announced on January 9, 2019, that the city of Baltimore has been selected to host the tournament from 2021 through 2023.

Where did Charlotte go wrong in the inability to secure the bid for such a precious tournament that is engraved into the city's history, and has become a staple to many within the community for 14 years? More germane to the city’s economy, why is the most financially impactful event in Charlotte deciding to take its talents and money elsewhere?

Logistically, the city of Charlotte was not committed to offering a more substantial amount of scholarship money to the CIAA, leaving an opening for Baltimore to step in and do just that. Per WSOC TV’s Joe Bruno, Baltimore reportedly committed to $2 million in scholarships, where Charlotte only offered $1.2 million, potentially $1.7 million.

Like in most marriages that fail, the city of Charlotte became stagnate with courting the CIAA and their board. There is a sense that city officials were never in doubt that when negotiations came back around, the CIAA would naturally decide to keep the tournament in Charlotte. On the ground, Charlotte citizens often casually referred to the CIAA tournament as a mere week of partying and networking. The city generated $50 million annually thanks to the business and attention the tournament garnered, but always lost in translation for local businesses and party promoters was the primary reason that profit was even possible.

From Charlotte citizens, to city officials, and local businesses, we collectively lost sight of what was most significant to the CIAA—the student athletes.

Johnson C. Smith University vs. Virginia Union in 2019 CIAA tourney | Photo courtesy of Johnson C. Smith University

Similar to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California, or the New York Comic Con in New York City—the CIAA and Charlotte went hand in hand from the purview of tourists. The tournament gained traction from a mainstream hip-hop aspect, which began to see entertainment celebrities such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, T.I. Cardi B, and many more, begin to host and perform at events in Charlotte for CIAA week. The likes of Angela Yee, D.J Envy, and Charlamagne Tha God from the syndicated New York based radio show, The Breakfast Club, host yearly daytime parties during CIAA week.

Culturally, these optics heralded a window of opportunity for a city trending upwards in the manner that Charlotte has been. The CIAA gave the Queen City something to stamp as a part of the allure to the city, in addition to enticing corporations to mobilize their businesses to Charlotte. Tournament week brought forth an opportunity for tourists to explore what a beautiful city Charlotte is, interact with the beautiful the people in it, as well as networking with the growing local arts and entertainment culture within the city.

Unfortunately, the celebrity of these individuals usually brings a large number of fans from other towns and states, and trouble inevitably follows. In 2014, two people were shot at a party hosted by P. Diddy at the Sheraton Hotel (now Le Meridien) near downtown Charlotte during the weekend of the tournament. Also in 2017, a shooting incident that targeted Memphis rapper, Young Dolph, took place during CIAA week.

To add insult to injury, CIAA attendees began to notice an unfamiliar 15 percent service charge on their receipts while lounging at a local Ritz-Carlton hotel during tournament weekend in 2015. This underlying racism turned off a lot of the alumni and steady tournament goers—plausibly because other major events held in Charlotte such as the NCAA tournament, NASCAR All-Star race, and the Democratic National Convention did not generate such obvious and prejudice services charges for fans. After an investigation by the state’s attorney general's office, the hotel agreed to a settlement of repaying the fans who were up-charged, as well as donating $75,000 to the CIAA.

Even as other unsavory incidents have occurred over the 15 years the CIAA has been in Charlotte, the attraction of the day parties, the nightlife downtown, business opportunities, and the allure of networking in ''the place to be'' with other African-Americans never wavered.

CIAA fans party during tourney weekend in 2019 | Photo by Joshua Laws/JamLaws Photography

In 2013, The CIAA began to sue party promoters who used their name, logo or likeness on event flyers. However, promoters effortlessly pivoted into substituting, "CIAA Party" with "Tournament Weekend Party" on flyers to keep from a lawsuit. Although the lawsuits seemingly had little impact, it was still the most stark implication of the CIAA getting tired of promoters cashing in at their expense, and doing all they can to distance themselves from local promoters who might've been misinterpreted with actual CIAA sponsored events.

Although the CIAA is at the Division II level within the NCAA, they aren't absolved for their inability to consistently generate an intrigue for fans to show up to the games. Even as the allure of CIAA weekend gained national attention over the years, there wasn't a clear initiative by their board to try changing the tactics used in engaging or enticing fans to come watch the games. They certainly could have marketed the games in a more conducive manner, considering that eight schools in the conference are located in North Carolina—with Johnson C. Smith University being a popular member located in Charlotte.

Founded in 1912, the CIAA is the oldest African-American athletic conference in America. In light of this, there was no shortage of alumni in attendance at the Spectrum Center to cheer on their Alma-maters .Unfortunately, the crowds at the game generally consisted of only said alumni, board members, students and staff members of the schools, along with parents and friends of the student athletes participating in the tournament.

There has always been branding throughout downtown Charlotte making it evident there was a basketball tournament happening, but there was no resonance for people to balance their eagerness to party and socialize, as well as attend the games. This was undoubtedly a miscarriage on the CIAA's behalf.

Amani Clark(LU) attempts three point shot in 2016 CIAA tourney | Photo Courtesy of Lincoln University

Nevertheless, the African-American base, particularly in Charlotte and surrounding areas, could've been more assertive with their support of a historic athletic conference like the CIAA, which has been committed to the education of young black scholars for decades.

With the NBA All-Star weekend taking place in Charlotte this past year, along with other economically lucrative opportunities that caught city officials attention—it’s reasonable to believe they may have overlooked the main source that made it possible for those new opportunities to manifest.

Charlotte would have waited much longer to be afforded events such as the Democratic National Convention in 2012, or another chance of hosting the NBA All-Star Weekend, if the CIAA’s economical impact on the city during their tenure wasn't taken into account. Likewise for the Republican National Convention, which was officially announced to be hosted in Charlotte in 2020.

There is no guarantee that Baltimore will have the same longevity or generate the same revenue annually as Charlotte has with the CIAA, but what if they do? There's also no guarantee that Baltimore wont have social or infrastructural issues that come along they way during the 3 year deal, but what if they dont? Or realistically, what if it those issues don't plague the CIAA with the same severity as they have in Charlotte? That undoubtedly would be deemed a positive step by the CIAA board members.

CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams fully expects to maintain the economical impact with the tournament moving north in Baltimore. "There are a lot of fans and alumni in the Northeast, and they’ve been coming south for a long time,” said McWilliams. “This provides an opportunity for them, it provides an opportunity to Baltimore and it will engage new fans.”

Hind site can be painstakingly nerve-racking, and Charlotte officials will make it a priority to fill the $50 million annual void the CIAA leaves, and much more. Although Baltimore ponied up the scholarship money, and the CIAA board of directors ultimately made a business decision to help configure the future of their conference; it cant be understated that it was essentially Charlotte who lost the CIAA more so than the CIAA’s wanting to leave.

Jon Olangi is a senior editor and writer at TTT Media, where he covers culture.

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