A young fan during the CIAA Fan Fest at the Charlotte Convention Center in February 2020. Photo: QCity Metro

Baltimore, Maryland will host the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s basketball tournament next year, but how will the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic affect scheduling and formatting?

The CIAA basketball tournament, which ended a 15-year run in Charlotte earlier this year, would normally tip off during the last week of February. However, with Baltimore in Phase 2 of reopening, a definitive start date for the 2021 event has yet to be confirmed. Ben Baxter, the CIAA’s assistant commissioner for strategic communications, told QCity Metro that all championship dates — including basketball — are still to be determined.

On Oct. 2, the CIAA announced that its board of directors and athletic directors association voted to begin winter sports, specifically men’s and women’s basketball, on Jan. 9.

New host city remains in Phase 2

Maryland is in Phase 3 of the state’s coronavirus recovery plan, but Baltimore Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young said his city would remain in Phase 2 out of caution. 

“We do not want to erase the gains we’ve made in the past month,” Young said at a news conference on Sept. 2. 

Under Phase 2, Baltimore’s indoor venues where motion pictures are shown or live performances occur are allowed the lesser of 50% max occupancy or 100 people. Similar outdoor venues can hold the lesser of 50% max occupancy or 250 people. 

Baxter said around 155,000 people attended the 75th annual tournament in Charlotte, which is a 10% increase from 2019’s numbers. The occupancy cap in Baltimore may be cause for concern if restrictions don’t ease up by February, especially since the tournament’s audience continues to expand. 

As of Nov. 8, Baltimore City had 19,188 cumulative Covid-19 cases and 473 cumulative Covid-related deaths, according to statistics from the Baltimore City Health Department. To move onto Phase 3, Baltimore City would need to see: 

  • A 14-day drop in new Covid-19 cases
  • A 14-day drop in deaths 
  • Percent tests positive below 5% for 14 days
  • More than 2,000 tests per day
  • Hospital utilization below 80% for seven days

A format change?

Baxter said the CIAA is considering “all options in terms of formatting,” but nothing has been finalized. 

The NBA and WNBA successfully implemented “bubbles,” or isolation zones, to protect players from the Covid-19 pandemic. After league officials suspended the season in March, players returned from hiatus in July to complete the remainder of the 2019-20 season. Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, hosted the NBA, while the WNBA played at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. 

The NBA and WNBA did not have any positive Covid-19 tests while in the bubbles, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed to multiple media outlets. 

NBA and WNBA players and staff remained in the bubbles for months, while the CIAA would potentially have to keep its players and staff isolated for a week. 

Isolation bubbles could be a drawback for the CIAA’s economic impact since the number of fans in attendance would be limited or nonexistent. The NBA and WNBA did not permit fans to enter the bubbles, and anyone who did come in had to self-quarantine for 10 days before interacting with players or staff.  

Photo: Ryan Bull

The CIAA basketball tournament was a big draw for Charlotte over the last 15 years as it grossed more than $600 million for the local economy, including $370 million in direct visitor spending, Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO Tom Murray said during a press conference in January. 

[Related: History of CIAA basketball tournament and its impact today]

The Baltimore Council Sports Tourism Development Council is still anticipating the CIAA to start in February, according to the city’s website. Currently, individuals can still look for rooms and get more information on tickets. 

Impact of a condensed schedule

With men’s and women’s basketball beginning their seasons on Jan. 9, 2021, rather than in November, the CIAA will be playing on a shortened schedule. Baxter said the condensed schedule will have no real impact on the tournament because most of the conference slate is played after the turn of the year. 

“For example, in 2019-20, Johnson C. Smith University played 14 of 17 conference games after Jan. 1,” he explained.

The CIAA suspended competition for fall and winter because several member schools are located in states experiencing dramatic increases in new Covid-19 cases. 

“This was a difficult decision but remains consistent with our long-standing priority of always acting in the best interest of our student-athletes, coaches and support staff,” Jacqie McWilliams, commissioner of the Charlotte-based CIAA, said in a July press release. “While there will be no athletic competition in the fall, we will continue to support opportunities that enhance the experiences of our student-athletes, member institutions and partners.”

Beginning Jan. 9, men’s and women’s basketball will consist of a 16-game conference schedule, and teams will have the option of playing a maximum of six non-conference games. League-wide Covid-19 testing protocols will also be in place and enforced by each team before competition.

“Throughout this process our board, the ADA and conference staff have been consistent about the safety and well-being of our students and staff being the number one priority,” Virginia State University President and CIAA Board Chair Makola Abdullah said in a statement last month. “Despite some tough decisions, we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensure that all of our membership is in the best possible position for the foreseeable future.”

Jonathan is a former QCity Metro reporter who covered Charlotte neighborhoods north of uptown. He also reported on education, public safety and health.

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  1. The CIAA needs to give it up on Baltimore. We know why the tourney said it would move from Charlotte to Baltimore, but Baltimore will not be the type of draw Charlotte has been to the tournament and associated events for the past 15 years. CIAA and Charlotte have become synonymous with one another and best believe the tourney will return to Charlotte sooner than later.