2010 CIAA Tournament: A Perfect Storm

The CIAA has finally arrived. The 65th annual Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament took over the Queen City last week as the five-day tournament returned for its fifth year in Charlotte.  The CIAA is the premiere basketball conference for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Over the years, it has evolved from a regional basketball conference to a national destination for upwardly mobile African-Americans due to numerous special events, activities and conference basketball.

If the conference is in its fifth year of operation in Charlotte, why has it finally arrived? Because finally the City of Charlotte has gotten over itself and realized what we’ve been saying all along – the college educated black folks that attend CIAA are here for a cultural experience that includes networking, socializing, spectatorship and fellowship.

The trepidation, with which Charlotte greeted the CIAA conference in 2005 when it first arrived, has largely been replaced by open arms, with local businesses and venues literally rolling out the red carpet for conference attendees.  This year felt different from previous years. Most businesses were welcoming, events were well planned, organized and executed and attendees seemed to be delighted with the outcome.

Some would argue that Charlotte businesses and venues were so jovial and welcoming because of declining dollars throughout the year due to the recession.  There is money to be made during the tournament, which has been consistently proven, even during rough economic times.  According to the conference website, CIAA accounted for the direct spending of over $25 million and a total economic impact of $38.2 million dollars over the one-week period in 2009. Neither the recession nor bad weather kept the dollars from rolling into the city during last year’s tournament.

This year’s tournament had even more events and much better weather, so the anticipated economic impact is tremendous from this year’s receipts.  According to veteran live music promoter Michael Kitchen of The Sol Kitchen, “Last year’s tournament was negatively impacted because of the bad weather. Even though there were a lot of people here, some promoters felt the heat because there were fewer attendees than during previous years.  Those that came spent less money. This year was much better because people came out in droves because the weather was much improved, which helped to make this year’s tournament one of the best ever financially and socially.”

April Garrett, 31, of Miami shares Kitchen’s sentiment. “I went to North Carolina A&T, so I always attended the conference. In Raleigh, everything was spread out and there wasn’t a lot to do. This year’s conference is the best because there is so much going on – parties and events and Charlotte is such a nice city.” First-time attendee, Craig Robinson, 31, of Washington, DC says, “I came down because I heard a lot about it from my friends. I think it’s cool because the conference has a small time flavor to it, but it is a major event.  It is great to see African-Americans coming together to support HBCUs and you can’t beat the networking. Everyone is getting along, which is great.”

Like the city of Charlotte which is becoming more and more diverse in terms of its influx of young, urban professionals, the CIAA tournament is attracting people from all over the country. Dallas, Miami, DC and Chicago boasted strong contingencies. Event planner Felicia Gray who was co-hosting a party with the Digital Divas at Zink stated, “It surprises me the number of people from Chicago and Dallas. We’ve met three people tonight that are from Minnesota. It’s amazing.”

CIAA caters to a broad range of African-Americans. It is one of the few places where you can find African-Americans of various generations intermingling and sharing space, which lends itself to the huge number of events that are ongoing during the conference. CIAA events included the Ford Fan experience at the Charlotte Convention Center, Food Lion Women’s Health & Wellness Symposium and Laugh 4 Life in the Time Warner Arena. Performers included En Vogue, Ginuwine, and local artist Lacee who sang the national anthem on Saturday.

CIAA added Chowan University to the conference this year, which shocked the hometown favorite JCSU Golden Bulls, by knocking out the two-time defending champions in the first round.  The conference also welcomed TV ONE as a television partner, which aired the men’s quarterfinal and semi-final rounds of the tournament, which was a first for the CIAA. The St. Augustine Falcons won the men’s tournament and the Lady Broncos of Fayetteville State won the women’s tournament.

Basketball games and CIAA sponsored events were buoyed by events hosted by celebrities and entrepreneurs. Rick Ross, Allen Iverson, Greg Oden, Melanie Fiona, Michael Vick, Diddy, Lil’ Kim, Doug E. Fresh, Chuck Brown and MC Lyte were among the celebrities in attendance who either hosted or performed.

Perhaps the most anticipated celebrity party of the weekend was Taylor Massey Entertainment ’s (TME) party at the Ramada Hotel at Woodlawn, hosted by Diddy, who made an appearance around 1 a.m. The event was well attended and had lots of buzz and energy, recovering nicely from a shaky start due to organizational challenges.

The Sol Kitchen’s Friday party at Mez was packed, with partygoers singing along to every cut that Grammy award-winning producer and DJ 9th Wonder spun. While the party was fantastic, there was gouging going on in V.I.P. with bottle service starting at $800.  If folks wanted to pay those prices, they would party in Las Vegas, Miami or New York. Part of the charm of Charlotte is the affordability of the city, which seems to disappear during CIAA when hotels raise rates exponentially.  In addition, V.I.P. is sky high during the tournament and includes little to no personal attention or additional services. Add drink prices that are triple what is normally charged, and Houston, we have a problem.

Although the parties seem to get better each year, they are still marred by novice issues like ticket issuing. Part of the reason for buying tickets in advance is to avoid standing in line. If people buy advance tickets, then there should be a designated entrance for ticket holders separate from those who need to purchase tickets. Unless there is a capacity issue, advance ticketholders should not be standing in line with folks waiting to purchase tickets. This happened at a number of venues.

Despite challenges with tickets and lists, which always seem to be somewhere floating around inside of an event as opposed to being at the door, the day parties are by far the best.  People are partying, networking and socializing in the middle of the day. 3 p.m. in Charlotte looks like midnight in New York. This is something that is specific to the CIAA and rarely happens in other cities, even during other major sporting events. The only thing better than the day parties is the DJs spinning throughout the day.

DJ DR, DJ Jazzy Jeff, 9th Wonder, Kid Capri, DJ Drama, DJ Stacey Blackman, DJ Skillz, DJ Bro Rabb, DJ D-Nice, DJ Vince Adams, DJ Slice, DJ Kool, DJ Trauma, Biz Markie, DJ Bonie B and DJ Daddy D were on the wheels of steel, moving the crowd and keeping the parties jumping.

Perhaps there is a little too much focus on partying and too little attention on philanthropic events during the conference which were well attended, but not “packed” like the legendary day parties and celebrity sponsored events.

For instance Uptown Charlotte / VIBE’s Friday event at the Ritz Carlton was a fundraiser for the CIAA General Scholarship Fund. Instead of attending the event, tournament attendees hung out in the lobby socializing. Some said that they didn’t go upstairs to the event because of the large number of people congregating in the lobby. They thought that the event was in the lobby, although there was clear signage directing people upstairs to the charity event.

While the parties are an important part of the CIAA experience, the philanthropic efforts need to be remembered and supported. The basketball tournament is already a fashion show with more people walking around the game profiling and chatting, than sitting and watching the actual game. There’s something that doesn’t sit right with dropping copious amounts of money at the bar, but not ponying up a few dollars towards a scholarship fund.  As the conference grows, more time, money and energy needs to be spent marketing philanthropic events to a greater extent so that they stand a chance against the outstanding entertainment events, especially in the Uptown area.

Jamell Hamilton, 34 of Charlotte who has attended the conference in Charlotte and other cities enjoys attending events in Uptown. “Uptown is able to accommodate so many people because there are so many venues. In Charlotte, you have 20 parties in a 3-block radius. At the EpiCentre, everyone is hosting something. That’s unheard of in other cities that host events like this.”

Event planner Tiffany Jones of Digital Divas agrees. “We host events Uptown throughout the year and have gotten excellent service, so naturally we continue to do this during CIAA. Zink is a great location because it’s two blocks from the arena.”  Promoter George Spencer’s D.M.V. Takeover Party Featuring Allen Iverson and DJ Quick Silva @ Strike City was a major success. “We had over 1,100 people attend throughout the night. I think Charlotte is a great location for the CIAA because of its cosmopolitan flare. Uptown’s killer combination of the EpiCentre, Time Warner Cable Arena, Ritz Carlton, and upscale restaurants, gives Charlotte that touch of swag that compliments the historical tournament.”

While most people enjoyed the tournament, there were some complaints. Garrett, who loved the day parties, disliked her stay at The Blake Hotel. “They ran out of hot water for the weekend and people were paying up to $300 a night to stay there.” According to a promoter, some of the artists he booked at the Blake Hotel last year suffered the same challenges. The conference is also marked by gridlocked traffic, particularly on Saturday night.

Spencer is concerned about the infrastructure in downtown, particularly 2nd to 7th streets. “There needs to be a better job of handling the traffic. Providing alternate routes and transportation options is something the city can work on. For example, keeping the rail open later or providing additional public transportation via shuttles would be invaluable to attendees and help alleviate traffic concerns,” he said.  Uncovered parking, like that at 935 and the Ramada, needs to be better managed.  When promoters are expecting hundreds of attendees, there needs to be a parking plan in place.

CIAA is clearly a national destination and next year is the last year on the contract. Just as the tournament appears to be hitting its stride, there have been rumblings about cities like Atlanta and Washington, DC making a major push to win the tournament. “I’ve been going to CIAA on and off for a long time. I’ve seen it grow so much. This is the best it has ever been and this is the most money that it has ever made. It would be foolish to leave Charlotte. We are the next biggest thing between ATL and DC, 25% black, and none of the other cities can hold it. Charlotte is the only city that can handle a conference like this.”

Many people staying positive, hoping that the CIAA stays in Charlotte because it has added value to the Queen City, just as the Queen City has added value to it. A truly reciprocal relationship exists between the two and should continue to grow and expand.

Keeping the CIAA in Charlotte makes sense. Besides, if the majority of HBCUs are located in North Carolina, why move it to another state?

This year, a perfect storm occurred – decent weather, great venues, positive attitudes, packed parties, veteran promoters, world-class talent and discretionary income made for a great 2010 CIAA conference. Is this enough for the Queen City to do what it takes to keep CIAA in Charlotte? Only time will tell.

An edited version of this article appears in Creative Loafing, where Nsenga serves as cultural critic.

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