The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's brand of basketball is coming to the Triangle.
But while the city of Raleigh, the region, revelers and basketball fans are hoping for a replacement for the departed CIAA tournament, a lot of folks may be in for a surprise.
From the action on the court to the fans in the stands, the MEAC is a completely different event.
Raleigh lured the MEAC tournament away from Richmond, Va., in an effort to offset the loss of the CIAA event, which was based at RBC Center from 2000 to 2005.
The MEAC is hoping its brand of basketball will thrive in Raleigh, much the same way the CIAA did when it brought its tournament here. This spring, in its final year in Raleigh, the CIAA tournament's economic impact on the Triangle was estimated at $12 million.
But CIAA Commissioner Leon Kerry is unsure the MEAC will have the same success.
"Can they do what we did? I don't know," Kerry said. "They're far behind. ... I guess we're the guy that everyone wants to be. We moved to an area where we had the majority of our schools. This is not MEAC country."
Shaw University, St. Augustine's College and N.C. Central University are all in the Triangle, but the only MEAC school in the state is N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro.
When an estimated 100,000 fans converged on Raleigh over the course of the CIAA Tournament, it was to socialize with friends as much as watch basketball. Much of the action at RBC Center wasn't on the court but in the stands and on the concourses. To many, the tournament was more a general homecoming than a sporting event.
Chauncy Walker Jr., a graduate of N.C. A&T who has attended every MEAC basketball tournament since the early 1970s, said the difference between the two tournaments was apparent to him this year when he watched a few CIAA tournament games on ESPN.
"There was nobody in the stands," he said. "And I'll tell you why. Everybody was out in the hallways, shopping and talking and carrying on."
At the MEAC tournament, he said, the social scene doesn't eclipse the competition on the court. Fans tend to focus on the games and to stick with alumni from their own schools rather than mingling with everyone.
Unlike CIAA followers, who got out into the community and spent cash, party-goers at this year's MEAC tournament didn't spill into Richmond's streets and nightclubs. They preferred to hold parties in hotels.
In Richmond, the MEAC tournament drew about 5,000 people on the final night, said MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas, who wants to see that number grow to 25,000 in Raleigh.
New ball game
The level of basketball played in the CIAA and the MEAC is also different. CIAA schools compete in the NCAA's Division II. MEAC members play in Division I, where UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and N.C. State also compete.
The winner of the MEAC tournament receives an automatic bid to the NCAA's Division I basketball tournament. This year the MEAC's Delaware State took a late first-half lead against Duke before falling 57-46 in a first-round game. In the 2001 tournament, Hampton University, another MEAC school, upset Iowa in the first round.
"Everybody is into Division I basketball, all the office pools; everyone is rooting for the underdog," Thomas said. "That's part of what the excitement is all about. We're bringing that excitement to an area that loves basketball."
But while the MEAC has impressed some on the basketball court, it's still mainly thought of as a football league. The MEAC currently has 29 players in the NFL; the CIAA has two. In the NBA, there is one current MEAC alumnus to the CIAA's two.
"Obviously, football over the years has been consistently good," Thomas said. "But we do have an excellent history on the basketball front."
Room to grow
Even though the CIAA is Division II, Kerry said, the atmosphere of the league's tournament is far ahead of the MEAC's.
"They haven't come to where I was in the CIAA 15 years ago, but I wish them the best of luck," said Kerry, who took the CIAA tournament to Charlotte. He has said he would reconsider Raleigh in 2008 when the contract with the Queen City expires.
"I think both of them are good, solid basketball conferences," said Pep Hamilton, a former MEAC football coach and player at Howard University. "But from top to bottom, the quality of competition and the excitement that each generates, the CIAA has a leg up."
Thomas said he realizes there must be more to the MEAC Tournament than just basketball if it's going to succeed in Raleigh.
"It has to be a fashion show, a family reunion, entertainment," he said. "It's all of that wrapped up in the experience. That's what we will be bringing."
But can the far-flung MEAC draw significant numbers of fans to Raleigh? The Triangle is the geographic heart of the CIAA, but most MEAC schools are in Maryland and Virginia. Others are sprinkled from Florida to Delaware.
"Raleigh presents a venue where our brand can grow," Thomas said, noting that MEAC institutions boast an alumni base of about 250,000, many living in the Southeast. "North Carolina is a central point."
The presence at Raleigh-Durham International Airport of discount Southwest Airlines also could be a plus.
"It's tough to get from Florida to Richmond," said Hamilton, a Charlotte-area native. "It's probably a good move to take it to Raleigh or an area that's easily accessible."
(Staff writer Cindy George and researcher Lamara Williams-Hackett contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Jaymes Powell can be reached at 829-4556 or email@example.com.