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CIAA Tournament

Will its legacy, fans and money follow the CIAA to Baltimore?

From 2021-23, basketball, branding and big bucks will be center stage

The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are nearing the end of their 13-year run in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The tournaments will be here this year and in 2020 before moving to Baltimore for three years beginning in 2021. It was in Baltimore for one year, in 1952, and also has been in Washington, D.C.; Hampton, Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia; and Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Fans, students and alumni used to flock to the games, and it truly was a homecoming. The reality is that basketball isn’t the centerpiece it once was, yet there still will be tens of thousands of fans descending on Charlotte for the celebrity sightings, parties, the fan fest, concerts and, yes, the championship basketball.

Eric Moore, former director of communications at Fayetteville State University, is being inducted into the John B. McLendon CIAA Hall of Fame on Friday. He’s attended the tournament and worked with the conference for decades. He’ll be on the sidelines for this week’s games, managing the scorer’s table and assigning official scorekeepers, public address announcers and statisticians.

“The conference is having to deal with a changing climate, moving to an entertainment perspective instead of strictly dealing with basketball,” said Moore, who started working with the CIAA in 1984. “The conference is at a cultural transition, a transition from a ‘homecoming’ to a smaller number coming just for basketball.”

Attendance figures over the years show fewer fans attend the games, but more people are showing up to partake in the smorgasbord of other activities during the week.

That reality wasn’t lost on CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams, the conference’s board of directors and other decision-makers, including sponsors. The transition of the tournament to Baltimore in 2021 is all about rebranding, engaging a new geographical fan base and gaining some measure of control over the festivities around the tournaments.

For McWilliams, this will be her seventh tournament week. Much of her work has gone into preparation that may not be apparent to the people who’ll enjoy the festivities. She has led the effort to make tournament week about empowering student-athletes, fortifying sponsor relationships and engaging with fans.

“Where we were when I first got here to where we are now, we’re collaborating where it’s seamless between the message, the branding and execution,” said McWilliams. “There’s no question about why we’re here. There’s no question about everybody’s role to get to the end goal of creating this experience, but even more for those who are coming.”

What McWilliams is referring to are the 20-plus CIAA-sponsored events in collaboration with sponsors such as Food Lion, Nationwide, Toyota, Enterprise, Coca-Cola Co. and others that put student-athletes from the league’s 13 schools at the center of experiences that prepare them to be better people.

During the week, while the nonaligned day parties and celebrity events are happening, the league is holding business symposiums, empowerment workshops, diversity and inclusion and volunteer events that provide practical skills for hundreds of current students.

First-round games started Monday night, and so did the events that give students a glimpse into their futures while building bridges with the historically black college and university and Charlotte communities. The conference touts the basketball tournament as the third-highest attended among all NCAA divisions.

“It is about tradition, leadership and community, so everything that we do across all 14 of our championships has to have an impact with tradition. So you have a whole expo every Super Saturday. The Hall of Fame induction, that we’ll do on Friday,” said McWilliams. “So you’ve got all those pieces. To me, creating that atmosphere, and my thought is, have something for everybody to feel like they have a piece of the CIAA and they see and feel the impact in our part of it.”

The decision to move to Baltimore was announced in January. That decision was not McWilliams’ alone. It was a decision by the 13-member board.

McWilliams said the move to Baltimore is about getting better control of the CIAA brand.

CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams (center) with students from Livingstone College at CIAA tournament’s high school education day.

Courtesy of the CIAA

“We talked a lot about that and getting trademark approval and a process to prevent ambush marketing. That’s a huge problem we have here, and it’s really hard to control,” she said.

Baltimore will come up with creative ways to ensure that the CIAA is getting something back from promoters or event holders that have benefited from the conference. That was very important for the board because in Charlotte there are events with no real connection to the CIAA that are profiting from it.

“If you Google ‘CIAA’ — I tell our board to do it all the time — see all the stuff that comes up. I get tagged on parties. I get tagged on all kinds of stuff that has nothing to do with who we are, but they want to use the brand,” said McWilliams. “We have attorneys and a team, a licensing team, to help manage that, but there will be support in Baltimore to help control and manage that. For us, we need that. There will be marketing dollars, a lot more marketing dollars, to help promote the Baltimore, Maryland, region because the state is even involved in the process.”

Part of the regional involvement is with Baltimore-based Under Armour, which is the new apparel partner for the conference. The company was involved in the bid process, said McWilliams, and this year is the first full year of the deal.

“CIAA means I’m going to be with friends and folk who get together and have a good time. To me, that’s a legacy of community, a legacy of opportunity, to get a chance to do things that you might not have a chance to do elsewhere,” Moore said.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh was part of the team that made the case for the city, and so was the administration for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

“With attendees arriving by road, rail and air, the CIAA-Baltimore partnership offers a tremendous opportunity to showcase and benefit the Greater Baltimore region as well as the entire state of Maryland. We are especially excited to highlight Baltimore’s sports history and venues as well as Maryland’s great educational institutions, like Bowie State,” said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford on behalf of the Hogan administration.

Bowie State University president Aminta Hawkins Breaux had a hand in the decision-making process as a member of the site selection committee. She said she is confident the estimated $50 million annual impact the tournament brings to Charlotte will translate to Baltimore.

“At a minimum, that’s what we expect for the city of Baltimore. But we think it has greater potential, bringing people from all of the region,” said Breaux. “People from all over have heard about it. This gives a greater exposure for many years.

“People have been attending for generations; their mother attended, now the children are attending. Baltimore has an opportunity to take it to a different level.”

McWilliams said the activities this week will be similar to ones in Baltimore but will look and feel a bit different. And there will be new opportunities specifically for Baltimore because of its proximity to several schools, such as Howard and Morgan State universities, which were original members of the CIAA, and current up-north league schools Bowie State and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

“I think we were very prepared on the why and the decision that was made was a great decision for all the reasons that we look for,” said McWilliams. “It wasn’t one or two things. It was a totality of a package that really encompassed who we are as a conference, and it gave us a new opportunity to rebrand ourselves, to have more control of our brands and to engage the Northern schools that normally struggle getting down here.”

Living the legacy

The CIAA is the oldest historically black athletic conference in America, having been incorporated in 1912. Several universities, such as Howard, Morgan State, North Carolina Central, North Carolina A&T, Hampton and Maryland State (now University of Maryland-Eastern Shore), are now NCAA Division I schools in other conferences but were once CIAA schools.

The move to Baltimore is intended to reinvigorate their interests and showcase the current efficacy of historically black universities and colleges no matter their location or conference affiliation.

Moore knows that all too well. As a boy, he attended the CIAA tournament in Durham, North Carolina, when his father worked at North Carolina Central College.

Moore, 70, will be inducted as a CIAA “supporter,” which means he’s worked many years in different capacities to help build the conference’s infrastructure. He is now managing partner of The Onnidan Group in Raleigh but worked to help accelerate the conference’s use of technology, electronic distribution of game and conference stats, development of the league’s internet presence and mentoring of sports information directors.

“I am very pleased to be recognized,” said Moore. “When I started getting feedback from friends and others, what came up was well-deserved. When I see the list of Hall of Famers, it’s particularly gratifying.

“It’s good to have someone who is a good friend going into the Hall of Fame class at same time,” said Moore, referring to former basketball official and CIAA coordinator Jim Burch, who was chairman of the board of trustees at Fayetteville State while he was there and one of the first black officials in the ACC.

Asked about the CIAA’s legacy, Moore said the conference affords African-Americans a chance to see a world-class organization run by black people from top to bottom.

“CIAA means I’m going to be with friends and folk who get together and have a good time. To me, that’s a legacy of community, a legacy of opportunity, to get a chance to do things that you might not have a chance to do elsewhere,” Moore said.

For Lu Yarbrough III — associate vice president, enterprise diverse and cause marketing for Nationwide Insurance — legacy is just as important, but for different reasons.

Yarbrough says Nationwide has been in partnership with the conference for 11 years. He’s seen it evolve and grow into a premier sponsorship, “a true partnership instead of transactional relationship.”

Nationwide understands the link between sports and culture, and the legacy of the conference’s schools. The company also realizes that the schools’ alumni, fans and students aren’t confined to Charlotte and the South.

He told a story that illustrated that point. He recently helped feed homeless people at a Columbus, Ohio, church with his daughter. It was organized by an Elizabeth City State graduate, the main speaker was a graduate of Claflin University and the pastor was a graduate from Livingstone College.

But the bottom line for him is this: On Monday, after the men’s and women’s Tip-Off Awards Breakfast, a man approached him and said, “I’ve been a customer [of Nationwide] for 30 years, and I’m never changing as long as you support the CIAA.”

John X. Miller is the senior HBCU editor for Andscape. He's a father, jazz aficionado and die-hard UNC basketball fan.