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CIAA Basketball Tournament

After successful tournaments, CIAA looking to extend its stay in Baltimore

The league and city are working on agreements that could keep events there until 2026

BALTIMORE — The debut of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, the nation’s oldest historically Black athletic conference, in Charm City had city officials, the conference’s teams and the Baltimore community clamoring for more.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who welcomed the league’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to the city from Feb. 22 to Feb. 26, likened the CIAA and Baltimore partnership to that of Old Bay seasoning and crab. Scott’s presence was noticeable throughout the week of festivities. His goal all week was to combat the city’s stigmas and celebrate excellence.

“Perfect for me, as the mayor of the city, is really about showing the schools, the students, the parents, that alumni, that we want them here in Baltimore,” said Scott. “Because what better place to celebrate the Black excellence of the CIAA in one of our biggest and Blackest cities in America. This is what we’re trying to do here: create new legacies of excellence and Blackness.”

Despite the uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams thought Baltimore exceeded expectations.

“Baltimore has done a really good job from the business community, private and public sector, the state, the other HBCUs in the community, they have rallied around Bowie State and Lincoln University as the co-hosts,” McWilliams said. “This is very different in a good way where I can see the growth of the tournament in the city and what we can build upon if we just sit still a little bit and work on the things that we need to improve, but continue to have a collaboration with the city leaders to make that happen.”

Officials said hotel occupancy during the week neared 80%, an increase of 20% over what typically happens the last week of February. Attendance at games peaked around 10,000 during weekdays, and the semifinal and final games attendance rose to nearly 12,000. R&B artists Ro James and Ginuwine brought spectators in Royal Farms Arena to their feet. NBA Hall of Famers Charles Oakley and Ben Wallace sat courtside to watch their alma mater, Virginia Union, compete.

“The biggest thing with championships is that our student-athletes and coaches have a chance to perform at the highest level and in front of friends, family and supporters. It does us no good when we have an empty arena. To see attendance on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, all I can attribute it to is everything that Baltimore, the conference and each of our schools did to make sure people were here,” said Etienne Thomas, director of athletics for Winston-Salem State. “We’ll see next year if we can continue that trend, and I think we can. Baltimore is a good fit for us right now. Would I love to see it back in the South? Absolutely, because that’s where a lot of our fan bases are. But Baltimore has been a good home for us this week.”

Similar to past tournament events held in Charlotte, North Carolina, the CIAA continued its concerted effort to engage the community with events such as the step show by Greek-letter organizations, a career expo and mental health clinic. Its long-standing partnership with Samaritan’s Feet enabled them to donate more than 400 pairs of shoes to Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School students. Tournament co-host Bowie State sent its cheerleaders, the Golden Girls, to celebrate with and entertain the children. School principal Venus Jackson, a Coppin State alumna, was elated that her students received CIAA game tickets, free sneakers and gift cards to purchase new athletic equipment.

“The fact that this kind of gift would drop into our laps at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School, it’s just been over-the-moon excited,” Jackson said. “[The CIAA] have given in a way that allows the children to still have pride [and] to be comfortable. The children don’t even realize that it’s a donation and a gift. They think they are part of the Harlem Park community. So they have come in unselfishly and willingly given their time and resources. We hope that this is an ongoing partnership.”

The legacy of the CIAA tournament extends far beyond basketball. During its previous two tournaments, in 2018 and 2019, the CIAA brought in $50.5 million and $43.7 million, respectively, in economic impact for Charlotte. Baltimore officials hope future economic studies will show positive growth for a city trying to rebuild its economy following the pandemic.

​​“From an economic standpoint, there’s money that we generate from the tournament, hotel tax revenue, restaurant tax revenue. When you overlay that with the impact COVID has had on the most urban cities in America, this tournament [brings] people back to work, so it’s workforce development components as well,” said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s official tourism and visitors organization. “This is not anything we enter into softly. We are very intentional about it. I’m a market leader, so I look at it from the perspective of trying to rebuild Baltimore, and I think the CIAA can help us rebuild. So that’s ultimately why this makes sense to us. It’s not just basketball.”

The current contract with Baltimore expires after the 2023 tournament. There are opportunities for a one- or two-year contract extension, so Baltimore officials plan to draft proposals to submit next month for a possible three-year tournament extension that would ensure that the tournament stays in Baltimore through 2026. City officials want to make Baltimore a long-term CIAA destination and are renovating the host arena, which they expect to be finished by next year’s tournament.

“We love Charlotte. I went to the CIAA in Charlotte as a student, but we want it here in Baltimore,” Scott said. “When you think about college, Black graduates [and] when you look at the region that we’re in, most of us percentage-wise live in this region, so what better place. We’re going to have a brand-new arena next year and even more opportunity to create more legacy here in Baltimore for the foreseeable future.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."