With the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Virginia Cavaliers among the teams playing in the opening rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament here, local organizers are hoping for a string of sellouts at the PNC Arena.
“I expect there to be a lot of Carolina blue and (Virginia) orange in the building,” said Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance and chairman of an organizing committee that has been working on the tournament with N.C. State University, which is hosting the event.
Based on past experience, the key to maximizing tournament attendance – and therefore maximizing the economic benefits to the region – could be whether those teams advance beyond the first round.
Eight of the 64 teams that made the cut for this year’s version of “March Madness” will play a total of six games at the PNC Arena – two double-headers on Thursday and one on Saturday.
N.C. State officials couldn’t be reached this week for the latest data on tournament ticket sales.
This is the fourth time in 13 years that Raleigh has hosted the tournament, and the second time in the last three years.
“It’s a little unusual to host it that often. That says a lot for the community,” said Dupree. He called the tournament “a signature event” that, when it’s held in Raleigh, ranks among the top sporting events of the year in terms of visitor spending.
The last time that Raleigh played host to the opening rounds, in 2014, the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance estimated that 17,720 out-of-town visitors spent $4.2 million locally – mostly at hotels, restaurants and bars and on shopping excursions. Those visiting fans tallied 10,105 hotel room nights.
Hosting the 2008 tournament was even more lucrative, generating an estimated $5.1 million in visitor spending.
The Alliance’s estimates only account for spending by people who come to the event from outside the Triangle. In 2014, 71 percent of ticket buyers came from elsewhere.
To be sure, Raleigh has hosted more lucrative sporting events. The National Hockey League All-Star Game and related events attracted an estimated $11.4 million in visitor spending.
Large fan base
Steve Thanhauser, co-owner of the Angus Barn, doesn’t have any way of measuring the NCAA tournament’s impact on reservations but has no doubt it’s very positive.
“The phone have been very, very busy,” he said. “We’re seeing increases on the website with people trying to get reservations.”
Dupree is hoping that the economic impact of this year’s event will be more like the 2008 version, when UNC, Georgetown and Davidson – led by Seth Curry – all won their opening rounds. As a result, all 19,477 seats for each the three double-headers sold out.
In 2014, by contrast, the biggest draw was Duke, which fizzled out in the first round when it was upset by Mercer. Total attendance for the six games that year declined by more than 5,000 compared to 2008.
Having the Tar Heels at this year’s tourney is a huge plus, said Dupree, “because it’s a high-profile school with a national brand and a large fan base. ... Yes, they are close to home, which is great. But they will attract fans from all over. They have a national following.”
Virginia is another team with a large fan base that’s within driving distance, Dupree said.
The Hilton North Raleigh/Midtown received “a nice burst of reservations” this week after the NCAA announced which teams were playing in Raleigh Sunday night, said Thom Keville, director of sales.
But, he added, “to be honest with you, Friday and Saturday for this week are still a little on the weak side. I think a lot of people are hedging their bets, so to speak, and waiting to see if their team makes it past the first round.”
One of the out-of-town teams is staying at the Hilton, but Keville said the NCAA won’t allow him to say which one.
“It’s a thrill,” he said. “We had probably 80 of our staff members waiting for the team (Tuesday) in the lobby. To the best of our ability, we dressed in the appropriate team colors – I’m not going to tell you what they are are. We had their fight song playing. We had the lobby decorated appropriately.”
Keville figures if the team wins its first game, a bunch of fans who’ve gotten word on where their team is staying will be making last-minute reservations.
“The entire hotel is rooting for this team,” he said.
This is the 16th time that Raleigh has hosted the opening or regional round of the tournament – the fourth time at PNC, plus a dozen times at Reynolds Coliseum, Dupree said. As in past years, N.C. State submitted a bid to the NCAA to bring it to Raleigh.
But Raleigh has never hosted a Final Four – and isn’t even eligible to bid for one. That’s because the NCAA requires that Final Four sites have a facility with a minimum seating capacity of 60,000. Domed NFL stadiums often serve as Final Four sites.
“Most markets aren’t eligible to host a Final Four,” Dupree said, noting that only a handful have such facilities.