The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association is bringing its big party to Baltimore starting in 2021.
The city and the athletic conference made up of smaller historically black colleges and universities, including Bowie State University in Maryland, announced Tuesday that the CIAA will move its popular men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to Baltimore for three years.
The weeklong event could provide a huge economic boost from up to 150,000 people attending games, shows, reunions and forums.
“This could be Baltimore’s Super Bowl,” said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore.
Baltimore beat out longtime host Charlotte, N.C., and Norfolk, Va., to become the next home for the event. In North Carolina, the CIAA tournament week was the city’s largest annual tourism event, with a reported annual economic impact exceeding $50 million.
Like Preakness, it’s a celebrity draw, according to the Charlotte Observer, attracting such stars as Cardi B, Lil Wayne, Ludacris and Odell Beckham Jr.
Baltimore political, business and civic leaders worked hard to bring the CIAA to the city, seeing not just the potential economic spinoff but a marketing opportunity and a chance to buff up Baltimore’s image. Some traveled to Charlotte to pitch Charm City to the league.
“The CIAA basketball tournament is more than a basketball championship; it’s a social event, a family reunion,” said Hutchinson, who spearheaded the CIAA bid. “There is a huge alumni base that lives in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region and north in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Boston, and that fan base wants to come down to this tournament.”
The event comes to the city at a helpful time on two levels. First, it will be held during the tourism doldrums of late February, and Hutchinson said the city anticipates it will fill 10,000 hotel rooms for a night and infuse up 25,000 tourists a day during the week.
It also will help offset expected losses from other major conventions and events that have outgrown the Baltimore Convention Center in recent years, including the Natural Products Expo East; Otakon, a Japanese anime and lifestyle convention; the National Athletic Trainers' Association; and the American Society of Human Genetics.
During a news conference at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Hutchinson said the event also melds well with Baltimore and the region, which boasts a strong sports legacy and large African-American community.
For the CIAA, the move offers an opportunity to reinvigorate an event it held in its home city of Charlotte since 2006, while reaching out to member school alumni in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
“There are a lot of fans and alumni in the Northeast, and they’ve been coming south for a long time,” said Jacqie McWilliams, CIAA commissioner. “This provides an opportunity for them, it provides an opportunity to Baltimore and it will engage new fans.”
McWilliams cited Baltimore’s accessibility by plane, train and car, as well as its walkability for people who come for the tournament week.
She said the event tends to draw the same people annually, who make a point of meeting up with relatives and friends for a show, forum or game. But officials also are hoping to “refresh the brand” and appeal to new fans who know someone who went to one of the colleges or might know of alumni or just love basketball.
Bowie State will serve as the tournament’s host school.
“Yes, people come to see basketball,” said Clyde Doughty Jr., Bowie State’s vice president for athletics and recreation. “But they also engage in tremendous social events. We’re blessed to have celebrities performing. It’s the total package.”
The CIAA tournament will host events in the convention center and Royal Farms Arena downtown, which the league will get rent-free, a value of about $700,000. The association will also get $1.5 million to put toward scholarships at the universities. Both were stipulated in the request for proposals, organizers say.
“It was a business decision,” said James A. Anderson, CIAA board chair and Fayetteville State University president. “But we got the feeling you wanted us in your future. … We’re showing up in 2021 and it’ll be an extravaganza.”
Founded in 1912, the CIAA is the first African-American athletic conference. Doughty said the conference formed because African-Americans were excluded from other leagues.
Other schools in the conference are Chowan University, Claflin University, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State, Johnson C. Smith University, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, Livingstone College, Saint Augustine's University, Shaw University, Virginia State University, Virginia Union University and Winston-Salem State University. The league once included Morgan State University, which outgrew the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division II.
Earlier this year, the CIAA signed an outfitting deal with Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic apparel brand.
The association will remain headquartered in Charlotte and will hold its tournament there in 2019 and 2020. The CIAA tournament week has been held previously in Washington; Norfolk and Richmond, Va.; and Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C. It was held once before in Baltimore, in 1951.
Charlotte officials expressed disappointment at losing the tournament in 2021 but said the partnership has brought benefits to everyone. Charlotte has contributed more than $13.7 million to CIAA scholarships, for example, and taken in hundreds of thousands in economic spinoff.
“We realize it’s a common practice for sporting events to rotate host cities,” said Tom Murray, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. “By 2020, Charlotte will have hosted this event for 15 consecutive years, which is an incredible run and not often encountered in the meetings and events world.
“Charlotte has cherished this event.”
Doughty said the CIAA tournament week has grown into an enduring “gathering place” for the schools and their alumni.
Bowie State President Aminta Breaux said student achievement remains a priority for the event, and students attending will have networking and mentoring and as well as performing opportunities. But she said everyone else comes away with something — from tax revenue for Baltimore and business for local shops to entertainment for alumni and recruiting for schools.
“Everyone can see the tremendous talent at these historically black institutions,” said Breaux, adding: “We come in our finery.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh, who was a cheerleader at Morgan State when it was a CIAA member, said she wore a shiny dress to highlight fashion, one pillar of the event. The tournament “goes beyond what happens on the court,” she said.
“The CIAA is a passion, a tradition” she said. “Baltimore is all-in.”