When I was in undergrad at North Carolina Central University, CIAA weekend was a celebration of black collegiate fellowship.
It didn’t matter if your school was actually playing in the conference or not. It was about fun, unity, school pride; it was about finally being off campus for a weekend. The pressures of what the weekend would bring shouldn’t have been more important than SOCW 3600, but it was so hard to focus when all I’m really thinking about is what I would say to Diddy if I ran into him at his party. (I always wanted to ‘Make the Band’.)
Nonetheless, it was a big deal for me.
But notice how in that vivid, disillusioned memoir of mine I failed to mention the most important aspect of tournament weekend: the basketball games.
And guess what? Lately, there’s been a major problem in game attendance — which is much bigger than just my younger self.
In the last decade, the attendance for CIAA tournament games has decreased exponentially while the overall number of Charlotte area visitors increase.
There seems be a greater respect to the party atmosphere associated with tournament weekend and a minimal regard to the actual basketball games.
This abandonment has been well noted in previous years, but its impact can’t be stressed enough. The future of the conference tournament treads lightly in shallow, murky waters if the need for conglomerate corporate inclusion can’t level with the ways of ‘Trap Queen’.
The concept of CIAA being a “party weekend” is one celebrated by the Black community and it prides itself with the celebrity notoriety that it gains. In fact, day parties, night parties, rooftop parties, party buses, after parties, after-after parties likely gauge more public attention and attendance than any other heavily sponsored event each year.
But this concept of “party of the year” comes at an unspoken cost.
People travel for hours to come to Charlotte for the best action-packed weekend they can find in the last stretch of winter, which means the spirit of the tournament — geared to celebrate unparalleled athletic talent at Historically Black College Universities — transforms into a corporate casino.
Big name sponsors and advertising groups who take full advantage of the million-billion-dollar African-American buying power, aren’t exactly oblivious to the plunge in CIAA nightlife either. They host productions that aim to supplement the weekend’s atmosphere but ONLY if seats are being filled at the games.
Efforts have been made to encourage attendees to go to the events specifically affiliated or sponsored by the CIAA.
Organizers discourage the use of the CIAA name on events that are not directly affiliated with the tournament. However, party promotors typically brush off those idle threats by stamping headlines that typically will sell themselves, even amidst the threats of attorney letters demanding their attention.
There’s no easy way to tell everyone to not go out and party. I mean, even I would do the infamous Hotline Bling dance if I ran into Drake at Midnight Diner at 3 a.m. But I believe we have a public responsibility to stay to true to the reason we flock from near and far every year for this historical celebration.
Last year Charlotte signed a contract to host the tournament for another six years.
According to Charlotte’s tourism authority, the CIAA grosses $30 million annually for the city which includes over 40,000 hotel rooms costing close to $300 a night. Meaning, if a dedicated fan who wanted to support their current or former institution decided to stay until the final games — they’d be paying close to $1,400.
Those are pretty problematic costs for the retired HBCU alum who used to attend the games regularly when the uptown lodging was affordable, don’t you think?
There’s so much history embedded in the conference that goes unnoticed and sadly, unwarranted.
The formidable Earl Lloyd, who died in 2015, was the first Black player to play in an NBA game. He played in the CIAA Tournament for West Virginia State.
NBA champion Bobby Dandridge played at Norfolk State in the CIAA. Charles Oakley and Ben Wallace, both from Virginia Union, showed their homage for the tournament by attending several games last year.
Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe played at Winston Salem; Detroit Piston “Bad Boy” champion Rick Mahorn played at Hampton in the CIAA; Curly Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters went to Johnson C. Smith; Al Attles from North Carolina A&T coached the Golden State Warriors to the 1975 NBA championship.
The resume of CIAA products is extensive and ushers its own entrance into the ‘what’s the best collegiate basketball conference’ conversation.
Moving forward, the focus has to be on preserving the history of the conference, not making it a conglomerate of day parties and celebrity nightlife appearances.
The future of these collegiate athletes who scourge themselves on the court all year long for this moment is determined by more than just their performance. They require support in the crowds as well. So how about we shift gears from the club and head to the court? Who knows, we may have fun in the process.
Cover image by Miller Yoho