If any state knows how North Carolina feels right now, it’s right next door. South Carolina spent 14 years in NCAA limbo, prohibited from hosting NCAA neutral-site championships as long as the Confederate flag flew on the capital grounds. It came down in July 2015, less than a year before House Bill 2 put North Carolina in the same position.
In Greenville, S.C., where North Carolina and Duke will play this week instead of Greensboro, there’s a definite sense of opportunity, with North Carolina potentially excluded from six years of NCAA events unless HB2 is repealed in the next few days. There’s also sympathy.
“I hate it for North Carolina,” said Robin Wright, the senior sports manager at Visit Greenville SC. “I hate it for all you guys. I really do.”
But when the NBA pulled its All-Star Game out of Charlotte in July, Wright went ahead and blocked hotel rooms for this week, just in case the NCAA followed suit – which it did, two months later.
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Wright’s foresight played a key role in Greenville landing the subregional when the NCAA moved it and six other 2016-17 neutral-site events out of North Carolina in September because of HB2, which prevents cities and counties from enacting anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. The ACC quickly followed suit.
As repeal efforts stagnate, and as the NCAA’s April 18 date to announce championship sites in 2018-19 through 2021-22 looms – already postponed from December to give North Carolina more time – the possibility that North Carolina could be out of the NCAA and ACC picture for six years is increasingly likely, with events for 2017-18 likely to be yanked at or around the same time.
No one stands to profit more than South Carolina, which is just getting back into the game. Organizers thought 2002, Greenville’s first shot at the men’s tournament, went well. The flag wiped out any chance to build on that momentum.
“That was something we were excited about,” said Southern Conference senior associate commissioner Geoff Cabe, one of only a few people left from the 2002 event. “We were hoping to have the opportunity to do that on a semi-regular basis. Greenville’s obviously a lot different now -- a lot of food, a lot of street events. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised.”
Over the last 15 years, as the flag controversy kept the NCAA away, the South Carolina sports-organizing apparatus atrophied. There’s no statewide point person. The city of Columbia hired a sportswriter (News & Observer contributor Ron Morris) to oversee its NCAA bids, submitted in partnership with the University of South Carolina. A group of sports-tourism executives visited NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis in August 2015 to review the bidding process.
Things are picking up quickly. Both Greenville and Columbia submitted bids to host men’s basketball in the 2019-22 cycle, and with North Carolina out of the picture, they’ll probably get them. (They might anyway; even before HB2 landed with such a thud, South Carolina was going to provide new regional competition for the traditional North Carolina sites.)
But there isn’t a lot else on the agenda: Charleston didn’t submit any bids, according to Kathleen Cartland of the Charleston Area Sports Commission, although it did pick up the ACC women’s soccer tournament last fall; Greenville bid for a Division I women’s basketball regional and Division III baseball; Columbia bid for Division II golf and tennis. (A representative for Myrtle Beach did not respond to a request for comment.)
North Carolina, by contrast, submitted 133 different bids for various sports at the Division I, II and III levels.
“We’re so far removed in Columbia from hosting,” said Columbia Sports Council executive director Scott Powers. “We’ve done a lot of baseball and a lot of softball over the years. The past several years, women’s basketball as well. As far as going after some of those other events, next time people will have a better idea of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The NCAA wants to be in the North Carolina business. It likes being here. It can count on the state to bid for and successfully host not only the big events like basketball but smaller events at every level, in Greensboro and Raleigh in particular. That’s a huge asset for the NCAA. When other cities bailed at the last minute, like Atlanta did with the women’s College Cup, Cary was ready to step in on short notice.
Those bonds are strong, which is why the NCAA continues to quietly wait for HB2 repeal, pushing back deadlines that were originally set months ago, desperately hoping North Carolina will get its act together. And if not, South Carolina will benefit.
“Believe me, South Carolina understands better than anybody else in country what it means to not be able to host NCAA championship events,” Powers said. “We take zero pleasure from it. That’s the truth. We want to be able to win this business on our own merits, because Raleigh and Charlotte and Greensboro are three of the top Southeastern cities for hosting. But they’re all in North Carolina, and it definitely gives us an advantage if North Carolina is not available to bid on those events.”
Hosting this event isn’t as easy as Raleigh and Greensboro and Charlotte make it look. Greenville, with its vibrant, compact downtown, is a pretty good site for an NCAA subregional. But there are a lot of subtleties and nuances to hosting the first and second rounds, the little things that the North Carolina sites have down to a science. The SEC women’s tournament, which Greenville hadn’t hosted since 2005, provided a bit of a dry run.
“It’s been quite some time since we hosted both of these championships,” Wright said. “There’s a different team in place here locally, except for Geoff Cabe, he’s been around for a while. It was great to have him in the mix. But (the SEC) went really great and surprisingly, in the world we work in, there’s usually some hiccups behind the scenes or right out in front, and there weren’t any hiccups. Everything went smoothly.”
If Greenville, Furman and the Southern Conference pull this off with aplomb, and HB2 is still on the books on the other side of the border, it might be more than six years before the NCAA tournament returns to North Carolina.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock