Who’s to blame for the CIAA tournament leaving Charlotte?

The CIAA basketball tournament, Charlotte’s most lucrative annual event, is moving to Baltimore.
The CIAA basketball tournament, Charlotte’s most lucrative annual event, is moving to Baltimore. File photo

Like a lot of breakups, the one between Charlotte and the CIAA basketball tournament was kind of awkward. City and tourism officials, including Mayor Vi Lyles, didn’t even know things were over Monday afternoon when a reporter told them the tournament would be moving to Baltimore in 2021.

The loss is a big one for Charlotte — last year’s tourney had a total economic impact of $50.5 million, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. CIAA officials say their headquarters will remain in Charlotte, but let’s face it, we’re sleeping in separate bedrooms now, and the fact that Charlotte found out the way it did raises a question: Who’s to blame for the CIAA slipping away?

At least a couple Charlotte City Council members have worried in recent years that Charlotte wasn’t showing the CIAA enough love, and one council member, James Mitchell, ripped the CRVA on Tuesday for putting together a “piss poor bid” to keep the tournament. But like a lot of breakups, there’s probably not one thing to blame.

There’s a fundamental truth about college basketball tournaments: Like a lot of high-profile events, they move around. In fact, in this era of easy travel and fierce competition, Charlotte’s 15-year run hosting the CIAA tournament is remarkable. In the previous quarter century alone, the tourney had moved five times between cities in Virginia and North Carolina before Charlotte plucked it from Raleigh in 2004.

Sometimes, the reason for such moves is strictly financial — a better deal in a new city. Sometimes, it’s that the relationship between host and tournament has soured. In Charlotte there were a few signs of trouble, including a recent four-year stretch of violence during tournament week that, through no fault of the CIAA, brought some uneasiness to the event. Things weren’t helped by a Charlotte hotel and restaurant separately putting a “CIAA service charge” on some bills during tournament weeks in 2015 and 2016, or complaints of hotel room gouging.

Most often, however, the reason big events move is nuanced. Things get stale — or at least something less than exciting. Attendance softens as fans get tired of the same restaurants and attractions, and new cities come along ready to offer things the host city doesn’t have. In Baltimore, that was a location more friendly to northern CIAA alumni, but it also was something else. “What stood out about Baltimore was their vision of how the CIAA Basketball Tournament could be woven into the fabric of the city,” James A. Anderson, CIAA board chair and Fayetteville State president, said Monday.

Perhaps that’s true. While Charlotte and the tournament were very good for each other, the CIAA felt like an annual guest here, not a part of the city. But 15 years ago, CIAA officials said the same sort of nice things about Charlotte, and it was Raleigh then that wondered what it could’ve done better to keep the lucrative event. Now the tourney is off to Maryland, but probably not for good. The contract with Baltimore is just three years, plenty of time for cities to be ready if the CIAA gets wandering eyes again.