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CIAA Tournament’s move to Baltimore benefits some teams, burdens others

Schools used to minimal travel adjust to logistical, transportation pains


For several years, traveling to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) basketball tournament meant making a quick trip up the street in Charlotte, North Carolina, for Johnson C. Smith University. Men’s basketball coach and athletic director Stephen Joyner Sr. would alternate between staying in hotels or in dorms on campus depending on the team’s needs.

However, when the CIAA announced in January 2019 that the tournament was moving to Baltimore in 2021, the trip suddenly required more logistical planning.

“Biggest thing for us was travel arrangements being in Charlotte for 10-plus years. We did not have to make the travel arrangements to move teams the way we had to last year to go to Baltimore. So that was different,” Joyner told Andscape. “[We] remained on campus and kept things as normal as possible for them, but certainly moving to Baltimore, all that goes out the window. You’re on the road, you’re in the hotel. It’s not your normal experience [as] if you were in your own bed.”

The Golden Bulls finished their final conference game of the season Saturday at home against Claflin, then quickly turned around and traveled to Charm City on Sunday.

Teams from Johnson C. Smith and the 12 other CIAA member institutions will travel to Baltimore this week for this year’s CIAA Tournament, which will run Tuesday through Saturday at CFG Bank Arena.

The tournament’s shift to Baltimore evoked different feelings for Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. The Lincoln Lions rejoined the CIAA in 2008, and Lincoln is the northernmost school in the conference, which includes schools as far north as Oxford, Pennsylvania, and as far south as Orangeburg, South Carolina.

“Our initial reaction was excitement, even though we had a great following for the tournament in Charlotte. Our Charlotte alumni did a great job of showing support during our time there,” Lincoln interim athletic director Joshua Dean said.

Playing in Baltimore provides more of a home advantage, Dean said.

“It’s easier to travel for our alumni coming from the New York, New Jersey area and obviously Baltimore. We have a large crowd from there as well, and logistically being that we’re the most northern university in our conference, it’s a little bit of a relief because of all the travel that we do throughout the year. [It] obviously helps out financially as well.”

What was once a 10-hour trip from Lincoln, Pennsylvania, to Charlotte to compete in the conference tournament now takes an hour and a half. Lincoln and Bowie State University are now the closest member institutions to Baltimore.

“It just returned a favor. I said I’ve made those trips probably for almost 12 years down South, so it’s just a gift for us to have it right now [in Baltimore],” said Kisha Middleton, the assistant athletic director for competitive excellence, senior woman administrator and deputy Title IX coordinator for Lincoln University. “And I do understand because the tournament has been down South for so long, and I mean it has changed, and people just have to get used to it a little bit.”

Despite the differing reactions between northern and southern CIAA schools, conference commissioner Jacqie McWilliams believes alternating tournament sites brings balance.

“I think you balance it by how you tell the story and why it’s important to be able to diversify where you have your championships,” McWilliams said. “We try to alternate the location north and south for all of our championships, or east or west, as often as we can to give our student-athletes the opportunity to play within their own region in their own communities.”

Baltimore offered the conference incentives in its bid to lure the oldest Black athletic conference in the country from Charlotte. Despite cancellation of the 2021 tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic, the conference was able to host its basketball tournament last year.

In June 2022, the city of Baltimore agreed to extend the current contract for the tournament through 2025.

“The money that has been raised by Baltimore, over probably 3½ million-plus for the CIAA, is critical because it actually eliminates some of the things that we would normally have to pay for facility operations that Baltimore will help cover those expenses for us,” McWilliams said. “That means that we’re able to give more scholarship money or funding back to our member institutions at the end of the year.”

According to the conference office, the 2022 CIAA Tournament’s direct spending impact of $13.9 million generated a total economic impact of $19.6 million in the local economy, supported 1,159 part-time and full-time jobs and generated $1.9 million in state and local taxes.

“Baltimore would hope that the economic impact gets just as big as it had in Charlotte. … It surpassed what Charlotte had in their first year,” McWilliams said. “My goal is that we sell out the venue. I don’t want anybody to be able to get a ticket or get a room.” 

When negotiating the bid for the conference tournament McWilliams was mindful to include travel costs and offset the high cost of hotels to help support all schools making the journey. The tournament also marks the unveiling of CFG Bank Arena after a $200 million renovation.

The five-hour drive to Baltimore didn’t affect Fayetteville State University; the Broncos won a conference championship for the first time in 49 years last year. Fayetteville State head coach Luke D’Alessio and the reigning champions noticed the commissioner’s efforts to make the tournament cost-effective and offer nearby practice facilities for the schools.

“They also held the prices pretty low for the team so you can afford to stay up there, which was big. It wasn’t outrageous pricing and stuff like that, so I think they made it really accommodating in terms of once you get up there that everything else is right there. And it was easy to navigate through the city,” D’Alessio said. 

“They have [recreation] centers, they have gyms for people that didn’t know the area [and] they have places for you to practice at. When I was at Charlotte, stuff was kind of harder because you have to find your own gym and stuff. You weren’t getting much help and you’re all over the place. So they really did everything they [could] to really welcome us and make things a lot easier for us, which I do appreciate.”

Before coaching at Fayetteville State, D’Alessio spent 10 seasons as coach for Bowie State and believes the CIAA brand and Baltimore’s historic basketball culture made the city a great fit to host the conference tournament.

“Baltimore loves basketball. The whole area loves basketball, D.C. [too]. And there’s a lot of alumni from other historically Black institutions and colleges … so I thought it would be really interesting to see,” he said. “And then the way they set it up where all the hotels were near the arena, I thought that was the icing on the cake, because they really wanted the basketball part of it, not just the parties and stuff like that. And I thought they had a great tournament the whole time.”

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."