Can CIAA shed its urban image to attract a broader audience?

As enthusiasm for the annual basketball tournament appears to wane for some locals, CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams is eyeing a marketing plan that would include whites and Latinos.

Yes, the headline you read is real. And no, we at Qcitymetro have not lost our collective minds.

Early Wednesday, as more than 6,000 high school students were teeming into the Charlotte Convention Center for CIAA Education Day, I caught up with Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams to talk about what I’ll euphemistically call tournament fatigue – a growing disconnect between the CIAA’s annual basketball tournament and its local, black fan base.

It’s been 12 years since the tournament first came to Charlotte, and more and more I’m hearing folks question whether it’s now time for CIAA Week – with all its parties and ancillary events – to pack up and find a new home.

McWilliams acknowledged that she, too, has heard “some version” of that narrative.

And then she said something I didn’t expect to hear.

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Beginning next year, she said, the tournament will reach out more to whites and Latinos.

At first blush, that very notion might seem quixotic, especially in a city where some white residents are said to plan their vacations to avoid the CIAA crowds. But McWilliams has her own ideas.

“We’ve got to change our market strategy in the city,” she said. “We market a lot to the urban community. But I think there is a better opportunity to collaborate with the city on marketing to the larger public…”

In this basketball hotbed known as North Carolina, she said, fans of every stripe should be making their way to CIAA games and official events.

“If we’re going to stay in Charlotte and help make the impact that we make,” she said, “we have to engage the community, and the community is going to have to want to engage in that as well.”

Here is how the rest of my interview went:

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Q. Do you really think the broader community might want to attend CIAA events?

I don’t know. We can only try and see what that looks like. I would hope so. Now that I live in Charlotte, it’s interesting the conversations I have with folks who are not in the urban community wanting to know more about what we do in the CIAA and how they can get involved. Even my neighbor… So that’s just a reminder that, when we talk about diversity and inclusion, how do we diversify our marketing efforts to get more people engage in the community? …If you’re talking about basketball and you’re talking about family, why wouldn’t we engage the whole community? So we can try it and see what happens.

Q. When do you think we might see that effort?

Definitely for 2018. Immediately after this tournament, we’re going to have to reset ourselves and figure out what the next tournament looks like for ’18. How do we change some of our strategy? How do we continue to work with the community, with city leaders and partnering on CIAA staying in Charlotte and managing it from there?

Q. The tournament has now been in Charlotte for 12 years. Is there a lifespan for an event like this in any city?

If you think about NCAA events and you think about the (college) world series, they’ve been in Omaha for like twenty-something years. If you think about Division III football in Salem (Virginia) for years. I think when you find a community that really supports your event, and they see value, and you see value, and there’s an investment on both sides

Q. How important is the local audience to the tournament’s success?

It’s extremely important. I see it now more than anything. We’re one of the only events that stayed in Charlotte (after the HB2 controversy). The CIAA schools are doing the best that they can to continue to bring alumni and sell tickets in their markets. But if you want an event to be successful, you’ve got to have local support and community support. We need locals to come purchase tickets. I’ve been saying all week, if you love this tournament, then how are you investing back into the CIAA? If you love this event and want it to stay in Charlotte, then how do you invest individually in doing that? We can’t do it alone, and so we need that support.

Q. Will there be any additional outreach to the African American community?

I think we will continue to evaluate where we need to go in the market, whether it’s the African American community or, like I said, diversifying other opportunities to engage the community. In our footprint where our institutions are, we’ll continue to market there as well.

Q. What question do you wish I had asked you?

Why is it important to support CIAA? Because I believe CIAA brings great relevance in this community and in this state and in this country. I think there is an opportunity for everyone to get engaged, to make an impact for our student athletes and the students who attend our schools. We’ve been talking all week that CIAA schools are strong and they’re healthy, and so is this conference. We’re 105 years old, and we need people to continue to invest in that. There is a great relevancy in why we’re here, and I don’t think we have to continue to justify that. The fact that we’re here in Charlotte and the fact that we have about 6,000 (high school) kids that we will impact today (at Education Day) demonstrates that CIAA is committed.

Q. This year, for the first time, the tournament is hosting its early rounds at Bojangles’ Coliseum and not the Spectrum Center. How is that working out?

We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback. This is the first year, so let’s keep pushing. Next year, I think more people will catch on. The atmosphere was really nice last night. It was intimate. It felt like there were more people in there than when we were in the Spectrum. It might have been the same number of people, but because of the way the venue is set up, it really made it feel like there were more in the venue, and we were closer. That’s what the game is about to me — you’re close up and personal with the athletes. The court was brand new; it was absolutely gorgeous. The signage was great, and Bojangles’ has gone up and above to ensure that the experience is great for our fans and student athletes.

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