Charlotte takes massive tourism and economic hit with CIAA relocation

The CIAA announced Tuesday that its annual men’s and women’s basketball tournament will be held in Baltimore instead of Charlotte from 2021-2023, a major loss for Charlotte’s tourism industry.

The week of games, conferences and festivities had an estimated economic impact of $50.5 million last year, making it Charlotte’s most lucrative annual event, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitor’s Authority.

There were signs, however, that the CIAA fervor has worn off a bit in Charlotte in recent years.

For the first time last year, for instance, amid softened ticket sales, organizers roped off sections of over 7,000 seats at the Spectrum Center for the tournament’s championship games. The CIAA had not been filling up its entire hotel room blocks in recent years, either.

Baltimore, roughly a 30-minute drive from CIAA member institution Bowie State University, beat out Charlotte and Norfolk, Va., the CIAA said in a statement.

CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams told the Observer Tuesday that fans have been clamoring in recent years for a change in location for the tournament. “They felt there was some fatigue in Charlotte,” McWilliams said.

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A change in venues, she added, is a way to help get fans excited again. Additionally, Baltimore provides fresh opportunities for recruiting efforts and tournament corporate sponsorships, she said.

CIAA Board Chair James Anderson told WFAE that price gouging at Charlotte hotels has become an issue for some fans in recent years.

Tom Murray, CEO of the CRVA, said that the tournament comes during a time of year (late February) that’s traditionally a bit slower for hotels and bars in uptown Charlotte.

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“We will have to work hard at replacing those dates,” Murray said. “We’re really disappointed we didn’t win.”

Murray did not say what could replace the tournament in years to come, but did say the city’s tourism arm has had some success in landing large-scale events recently. In 2021, for instance, the CRVA is contracting with the NAACP for its annual convention, which will bring an estimated 10,000 people to the city. The 2020 Republican National Convention is another major one-time event that will bring business to uptown hotels, bars and restaurants.

A losing bid

The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the oldest African-American athletic conference in the nation, has held its popular basketball tournament in Charlotte every year since 2006. Nine of the conference’s 13 member schools are in North Carolina.

When renewing its contract to host the tournament in Charlotte for an additional six years in 2014, the CIAA also said it would relocate its headquarters from Hampton, Va., to Charlotte. In return, the CRVA increased its annual payment to the athletic association from $1 million to $1.4 million.

Per its agreement with the CIAA, Charlotte’s payout has increased incrementally each year, Murray said.

The city’s bid to host in 2021-2023, which Murray described as “very aggressive,” included $1.5 million in scholarships to member schools. That figure is included in the roughly $2.6 million it takes Charlotte each year to host the event, Murray added.

Cristina Bremner, senior director of marketing for the Epicentre, which hosts a number of unsanctioned CIAA events every year, said the conference has been generous to the city and the Epicentre. “We are going to miss our partners and especially the CIAA organization,” Bremmer said.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the CIAA tournament will be held in the convention center and Royal Farms Arena in downtown Baltimore, which the conference will get rent-free, a value of about $700,000. Baltimore will also contribute $1.5 million in scholarships for member institutions, the Sun reported.

By the time the CIAA wraps up its tournament in Charlotte in 2020, the city will have contributed $16.8 million in scholarships, according to Murray.

Charlotte’s bid included letters from government, business and nonprofit officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper, Johnson C. Smith University President Clarence Armbrister and American Airlines spokesman Tracey Montross. The bid detailed how the city would support the tournament, from waived arena fees to police security.

Charlotte met all of the CIAA’s bid requirements, Murray said.

“I think it really came down to whether they wanted to stay in Charlotte, or if they wanted to have a rotation of their event like nearly all other major sporting events do,” Murray said.

Not everyone agreed.

James Mitchell, at-large Charlotte city council member, said that the city “absolutely did not put its best foot forward” with its bid to keep the tournament. For instance, Charlotte’s bid lacked corporate support, he said, and city council should have had a say in how the bid was put together.

Charlotte should have worked harder to get hotel prices down, Mitchell added, and it should have offered more than $1.5 million in scholarship money to the schools.

And, most importantly, he said, Charlotte should have offered the Spectrum Center to the tournament for three days instead of two.

The CIAA tournament “put Charlotte on the map” when it comes to landing large-scale events such as the Democratic National Convention in 2012, Mitchell said.

“We should have knocked it out of the park just like Honeywell,” said Mitchell, referring to the tech manufacturing giant to which the city, county and state offered a combined $80 million in incentives last month to move its corporate headquarters from New Jersey to Charlotte.

The CIAA has said it will keep its headquarters in Charlotte despite its decision to move the tournament to Baltimore.

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“This is an exciting time for the CIAA as we have an opportunity to bring the basketball tournament to a new market, moving it closer to many of our northern institutions who have traveled to Charlotte for more than a decade,” McWilliams, the commissioner, said in a statement.

As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.