MEAC success no slam dunk

Hoops event will grow, sides say

Staff WriterJanuary 11, 2006 

Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, front left, and MEAC's Dennis Thomas announced the tourney arrival last year.

STAFF FILE PHOTO BY CHRIS SEWARD

Just under two months before the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournament makes its Triangle debut, local buzz about the event is barely audible.

Raleigh and league officials say they are confident that, over time, the MEAC tournament can become the iconic, wildly popular gathering the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tournament used to be for Raleigh.

But the MEAC will have to clear a series of stumbling blocks first.

The CIAA tournament grew from just over 50,000 fans to more than 110,000 during its six-year stint in Raleigh from 2000 to 2005. But two years ago, Raleigh lost its bid to host the CIAA tournament to Charlotte.

This year's CIAA tournament, starting Feb. 27, is expected to draw 125,000 people and pour $15 million into the Queen City's economy. Already, 85 percent of the tickets available from the league have been sold, CIAA officials said.

"That's the CIAA, and I commend them for that," said MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas. "We are not there yet. But we are on our way."

Thomas could not say how many tickets the MEAC office has sold.

The MEAC is a collective of 11 historically black Division I schools scattered along the East Coast between Florida and Delaware. It includes Howard, Hampton and Florida A&M universities and a North Carolina school, N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. At many MEAC schools, football has long been a bigger draw than basketball.

The CIAA is made up of 12 historically black Division II schools, including three in the Triangle -- N.C. Central University, Shaw University and St. Augustine's College. Basketball often overshadows football at CIAA schools.

Economic impact

Lawrence Wray, assistant city manager in Raleigh, said the city can boost the MEAC as it did the CIAA. When Raleigh won a three-year contract to be the MEAC's host city last summer, it pledged the conference about $800,000 in scholarships and other payments.

In the seven months since, the committee drafted to help raise scholarship funds and cover some costs has secured $200,000 to $300,000 in pledges, Wray said.

Although Raleigh officials continue to estimate that 55,000 people will attend the MEAC tournament, the city has lowered its estimate of the tournament's economic impact on the local economy -- from $4.4 million to $2.5 million.

Scott Dupree, director of sports marketing for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city is now using its own, more conservative formula to estimate impact.

In 2005, about 42,000 people attended the MEAC tournament in Richmond, Va., which was host city for seven years. Those fans had an estimated $4 million economic impact.

"This is a first-time event for Raleigh, so ... what's going to happen is always difficult to predict," Dupree said. "We don't want to over-promise."

Among the MEAC's biggest challenges is timing. The CIAA tournament will begin in Charlotte a week before the MEAC. Wray and Thomas acknowledge that the CIAA draws alumni from both its own and MEAC schools.

Three days after the MEAC tournament begins in Raleigh, the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament will tip off in Greensboro.

Also, MEAC schools, collectively, have performed poorly this basketball season.

As of Tuesday, MEAC men's basketball teams had a combined record of 36-112.

But league and city officials focus on the Triangle's love affair with basketball and the MEAC's Division I level competition.

"I guess I look at the glass as half full, realistically," Thomas said.

Local interest

Two additional North Carolina schools -- NCCU and Winston-Salem State University -- have indicated they plan to join the MEAC.

Triangle residents say they haven't heard much talk about this year's MEAC tournament -- at least not yet.

"I think the MEAC is going to kind of sneak up on people this year," said Brian Dawson, a party promoter and DJ at the Triangle's WQOK radio station.

Delbert "DJ Kraze" Jarmon, another Triangle DJ and event coordinator, said that during a trip to Charlotte last week, he noticed that most of the city's major venues were already booked for events designed to appeal to the CIAA crowd. In Raleigh, Jarmon said, it seems most popular spaces are still wide open during the MEAC.

A MEAC advertising campaign that will eventually include billboards and radio ads began Dec. 24.

On the nonathletic side, several alumni groups associated with MEAC schools will hold national meetings in Raleigh during the tournament. MEAC fashion and step shows, a career fair, a college-recruiting fair and live tournament broadcasts of "Showtime at the Apollo" and the "Tom Joyner Morning Show" are planned.

"The CIAA was like the Super Bowl for Raleigh," Dawson said. "But I am excited to see what's going to happen with the MEAC. ... In a couple of years, we might wind up forgetting about the CIAA."

Staff writer Janell Ross can be reached at 829-4698 or jross@newsobserver.com.

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