Few conference basketball tournaments can truly be called “an event” – the place to see and be seen, regardless of who’s playing.
There’s the Big East tournament at New York’s Madison Square Garden and, though it’s lost some of its edge, the ACC tournament, especially when it’s in North Carolina.
There’s also the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, a Division II league that sells out an 18,500-seat arena and draws more than 100,000 people to Charlotte.
The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference isn’t in that elite group. Since 1993, the tournament has bounced from Richmond to Durham and Raleigh, N.C., Tallahassee, Fla., Greensboro, N.C., Baltimore and Winston-Salem, N.C. Back in the 1990s, it was played four times in Norfolk.
Ticket sales in recent years have been stuck between 30,000 and 40,000 for the six-day event. After-hours parties, concerts and other events were sparsely attended in Raleigh and Winston-Salem, the last two cities to host the tournament.
By all measures, the MEAC plays the best basketball of any historically black conference. When Norfolk State stunned Missouri last season in the NCAA tournament, it became the third MEAC team to beat a No. 2 seed.
Yet, officials have struggled to turn a competitive tournament into an event that draws alumni to socialize, go to parties and, of course, help sell out an arena.
MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas thinks he’s found the venue and market where his tournament can finally set down roots and grow.
“We believe this tournament will be successful in Norfolk,” he said.
The MEAC tournament began an eight-day run in Norfolk on Saturday with an Aretha Franklin concert and coaches clinic.
Monday through next Saturday, the league’s 26 men’s and women’s teams will compete at Scope for two titles and two NCAA tournament bids.
The MEAC has a three-year agreement to play in Norfolk, and the league and the city have gambled much that the tournament will succeed.
Nearly three years ago, the league moved its headquarters from Town Center in Virginia Beach to the Norfolk Commerce Park near Norfolk International Airport. And rather than rent, the MEAC purchased its new home for $1 million.
It was, Thomas says, an investment in the city he believed would boost the tournament.
“We purchased the building because we believed the tournament would eventually come to Norfolk, that it would grow and prosper here,” Thomas said.
He said the demographics of Hampton Roads, with a large black population, had much to do with the decision to move, as did a city leadership eager to host the tournament in a growing downtown area.
Having Norfolk State and Hampton University within a short drive of Scope, and seven other schools within a 4½-hour drive, all make the city the logical place for the tournament, he said.
“When you look on a map, it’s where the tournament belongs,” Thomas said.
The city also agreed to give the MEAC $150,000 every year, three months before the tournament, so the league can promote and help pay for the event. That could increase to $200,000 in two years if attendance hits certain levels.
Scope is being provided rent-free – an incentive likely worth about $30,000 – and the city will cap its expenses for ushers, ticket sellers, security, etc., at $90,000. The city also will provide 300 parking passes and allow the MEAC to retain merchandise sales. Concessions revenue will remain with the city, but the league can sell signage rights at Scope.
John Rhamstine, who runs Scope and the city’s other downtown venues, and city manager Marcus Jones negotiated the deal. Rhamstine said it’s a good agreement for both parties.
The MEAC tournament brought about 30,000 visitors and $3 million in economic impact to Winston-Salem, according to VisitWinston-Salem, that city’s visitors and convention bureau.
“The return we’re going to see in tax revenues and parking revenue will far exceed” the $180,000 the city is spending, Rhamstine said.
The MEAC was formed in 1979 to provide historically black schools a Division I conference. It began with seven members and has grown to 13, stretching south to Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., and north to Morgan State and Coppin State in Baltimore.
Most of its members came from the CIAA, a 101-year-old league that held its first basketball tournament in 1946.
Therein lies the MEAC’s problem: The CIAA is much older and has retained the loyalty of thousands of fans from MEAC schools.
The CIAA tournament made its mark in the 1970s and ’80s in Hampton and Norfolk, when it attracted sellout crowds. It outgrew Scope and Hampton Coliseum and moved to bigger venues in Raleigh and Charlotte.
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority estimates that the 2012 tournament brought $50.5 million in new spending to the city.
Norfolk vice mayor Anthony L. Burfoot, a Norfolk native and Virginia State graduate, often attends the CIAA tournament to see old friends more than to watch games.
“It’s more than a basketball tournament,” he said. “It’s like a reunion. It’s like homecoming.”
Officials agree that the MEAC tournament won’t turn into that kind of social event for years.
“It’s a great Division II tournament,” Thomas said of the CIAA. “They’ve done a great job. Most of our institutions came from the CIAA. That’s why so many of our fans still have a connection there, and that’s fine.
“But we want to establish our own prominence.”
Thomas said officials in Raleigh and Winston-Salem worked to make the tournament a success, but that arenas in both cities, though larger and newer than Scope, had inherent flaws, such as being located away from downtown, so restaurants and clubs were not within walking distance. There was no shopping nearby and few tourist attractions.
In Norfolk, Thomas said it was a plus to have five large hotels, MacArthur Center and the restaurants along nearby Granby Street. Other pluses include the planned revitalization of Waterside
and the new passenger rail service that will allow fans from Baltimore and Washington to take a train downtown.
“You’ve got a shopping mall within walking distance of Scope,” NSU athletic director Marty Miller said. “You’ve got all the restaurants on Granby Street. Virginia Beach is half an hour away. Our fans are going to have a great experience.”
During negotiations with Jones and Rhamstine, Thomas expressed concerns about restaurants being open when fans are leaving Scope. In Winston-Salem, fans complained that many were closed.
Tony DiFilippo, president and CEO of VisitNorfolk, said his office has been in touch with restaurant owners, who said their establishments will remain open late.
“We’ve let them know that people are coming,” he said. “They’re going to give the customer what they want.”
Norfolk mayor Paul Fraim, Burfoot and city councilman Paul R. Riddick have been courting the MEAC for more than a decade.
At first, the conference politely said no to bids from the city. Then, in 2008, the MEAC proposed playing in Norfolk, but at Old Dominion’s Constant Center.
Norfolk officials declined to host the event at ODU, so the tournament moved from Raleigh to Winston-Salem.
At the time, Norfolk was in the midst of a $10.7 million makeover of 42-year-old Scope, which until 2004 had suffered from a lack of even basic maintenance.
“The building was tired and needed upgrades,” Burfoot said.
Precisely, said Thomas.
“Some things needed to be done to Scope,” he said. “There’s a certain expectation that your fans have when they come to a Division I tournament that’s part of March Madness. It’s a different picture than it was a few years ago. Norfolk has done a wonderful job of upgrading the facility.”
Scope’s 9,140 seats have all been replaced or refurbished. There is a new lighting and sound system and a new court. The concessions areas and dressing rooms have been updated. A new $2.3 million scoreboard displays replays in high definition.
“We’re so much better positioned now than we were a few years ago to embrace this tournament,” Burfoot said.
Thomas said the league has revamped its marketing. Banners and signs with the MEAC tournament logo, featuring downtown Norfolk in the background, hung in each league basketball arena. PA announcers promoted tournament tickets during games. There have been television and radio ads in Hampton Roads, and signs on buses and light rail.
Television and radio ads have also run in the Washington and Baltimore markets.
So far, DiFilippo said, signs are encouraging. The two major downtown hotels, the Marriott and Sheraton, are sold out Friday and Saturday night. Hotel owners expect that 90 percent of the city’s 5,000 hotel rooms will be sold this week, he said.
Patricia Porter, the MEAC director of media relations, said books of tickets, priced at $122 apiece, are selling faster this year than last.
Given that the Norfolk State men and Hampton women both went unbeaten during the MEAC regular season, Thomas said he hopes ticket sales are up significantly this year.
“We want to sell out our championship game,” he said.
ESPNU, the national cable outlet, is broadcasting both finals, and both broadcasts will feature promotional shots of the city.
“This tournament comes at a good time of year, when we have a lot of hotel rooms that are available, DiFilippo said. “None of these folks would be coming to Norfolk if it wasn’t for this tournament.”
Miller counsels patience, saying it may take time for attendance to improve markedly.
“After this year’s tournament, I think word will spread,” he said. “People are going to return home to North Carolina and Maryland and South Carolina and talk about all of the attractions here, about how they had a good time.”
“There won’t be 100,000 people here like there are at the CIAA tournament,” he said. “There won’t be anywhere close.
“But there will be more people than they had in Winston-Salem and Raleigh. And in future years, it’s just going to just get better and better.”
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