City leaders weigh likely competition for CIAA tournament

Charlotte has the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament for at least two more years, but a decision this month by the conference to field bids from other cities put local leaders on notice they likely face a tougher road to keep it. On Monday, members of City Council discussed expected competition for the tournament — an event that brought $29 million worth of spending and 131,000 visitors to town this year.

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the agency that recruits and promotes tourism events, plans to formally notify the CIAA of its forthcoming tournament bid on Tuesday — the deadline for all prospective sites to make their interest known. 

Bids are due Sept. 9. On Dec. 14, the CIAA board will name its host city for the 2021, 2022 and 2023 tournaments.

Beyond hearing about the tourism value and making vows to fight for the event, council members emphasized what they portrayed as Charlotte’s favorable odds for retaining the CIAA.

“I think we lost control of the narrative,” said council district representative Larken Egleston, who attended the meeting Monday but isn’t a committee member. “The narrative became, ‘The CIAA is leaving Charlotte.’ And we all know that’s not what’s happening. There’s a contract that we’ve all known when it was going to expire and they’re doing what any good business would do, which is explore options that still include Charlotte.”

Council’s economic development committee heard a presentation about the benefits of the men’s and women’s tournaments, played in Charlotte every year since 2006, while also mulling anticipated interest from Atlanta, Baltimore, Richmond and Winston-Salem. 

The CIAA is comprised of 13 historically black colleges and universities. Eight are in North Carolina, including Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte.

The current contract between the conference and the city ends in 2020. Local government provides $2 million annually in subsidies to the tournament, including scholarship donations, free use of the convention center and paying the operating costs at Spectrum Center and Bojangles’ Coliseum.

Egleston’s district includes both of the arenas where CIAA tournament games are played.

Committee leader James Mitchell warned of an insurgent campaign among the four member schools located in the northern portion of the conference’s footprint: Bowie State (Maryland), Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) and Virginia State and Virginia Union. Jacqie McWilliams, the CIAA commissioner, recently told Mitchell those schools want to see the basketball tournament played closer to their campuses, Mitchell said Monday.

The councilman said Baltimore could be of particular concern since Caesars Entertainment opened the city’s first casino there in 2014, located near the tourist-friendly Inner Harbor.

Mike Butts, vice president of sales at the visitors authority, reviewed the latest economic impact study for the CIAA, based on 600 surveys of fans who attended the 2018 tournament between Feb. 27 and March 3. Based on those responses, the visitors authority and the CIAA calculated an overall benefit of $50.5 million, including spin-off benefits from visitor spending.

Direct spending — money spent by visitors on hotel rooms, meals, transportation and other expenses — totaled $28.8 million, an increase of 6.7% over 2017. The CIAA tournament is the city’s most lucrative recurring tourism event, according to the visitors authority.

“It’s a great piece of business,” Butts told the committee.

According to the latest survey results, 68.8% of tournament attendees are alums of CIAA schools and 39% live in North Carolina.

Conference executives have pushed for lower hotel room rates for years in Charlotte. Industry analyst STR reported hotel rates decreased in 2017 and again this year, down from peak rates of $269 in 2016. Last year the peak room rate was $255; in 2018, it fell slightly, to $252.

Steady growth in new hotels uptown played a key role in a jump in CIAA tournament occupancy in the center city this year, according to STR figures. In addition, while peak rates declined, hotel premiums during tournament week remained well above typical prices in uptown ($200 to $252 per night versus non-CIAA averages of $184) and countywide ($137 to $164 versus $121).

Two other councilmen who aren’t committee members — Tariq Bokhari and Braxton Winston — also sat in on the economic development meeting. Bokhari, one of two council Republicans (Ed Driggsis the other), and Winston pressed visitors authority business analyst Heath Dillard on the methodology of the impact estimates for the CIAA Tournament.

Winston asked whether allowances are made for business lost during the tournament, such as companies and workers who may change their behavior patterns in uptown because of the crowds. Dillard said the studies don’t account for displaced workers and customers. Winston also hopes to get more detail on which businesses and workers benefit, posing a hypothetical question about whether a restaurant rented out for a private party helps or hurts bartenders, who often rely on customer tips. And so on.

Bokhari said that while he remains confident the CIAA produces sizable net gains for the city, parsing the details and methodology would be valuable, particularly with inevitable debates coming over the benefits of hosting the 2020 Republican National Convention.

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