This is the fourth time the NCAA tournament has come to PNC Arena in the past 13 years. Greensboro and Charlotte have also hosted three times and each will again over the next two years, Winston-Salem once.
North Carolina has had an uncommon near-monopoly on the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, a product of not only the intense interest in college basketball in the state but the willingness of Duke and North Carolina fans to buy tickets well in advance, gambling on a top seed, ensuring full houses.
It’s about to get a lot tougher. As the NCAA solicits bids this summer to host the basketball tournament’s first and second rounds and regionals in 2019-22, Raleigh will again face intense competition from Charlotte and Greensboro as well as South Carolina for the first time in 15 years, with the NCAA’s ban on championships there lifted.
“This continues to be, for this market, the absolute signature event,” said Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance. “The top of the priority list. To continue to host it, to host it at the highest level, to set the stage to bring it back – that’s the top priority for us.”
Working with multiple universities to host events in different sports and divisions – N.C. State, which is doing all the heavy lifting this weekend, as well as Campbell, Mt. Olive and Meredith – and the Town of Cary, the GRSA has built up an excellent reputation and a lot of goodwill over the years with the NCAA.
When the NCAA needed an emergency home for the women’s soccer College Cup next year, Campbell, Raleigh and Cary stepped in on short notice to host it again at WakeMed Soccer Park. After almost a decade of trying, that group finally landed the women’s lacrosse championship for 2017. Basketball, though, is clearly the priority – and important people notice.
“You love coming to a site like this because your confidence is high that everything’s going to be in place,” said Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis, the basketball committee’s representative in Raleigh. “You’re not having to make a lot of corrections or enter practice or game days with a high degree of fear. We have great confidence.”
The fourth time around, the GRSA and N.C. State have it down to a science. When six of the eight teams arrived at their hotels (North Carolina didn’t leave Chapel Hill until Thursday afternoon and Florida Gulf Coast didn’t get in from Dayton until early Thursday morning), they were greeted by welcoming committees, the school fight song playing in the lobby and grab-and-go food spreads – one of the little details that sets Raleigh apart.
“We’re proven, we have a good plan in place, the NCAA trusts us, which is really important,” Dupree said. “So we can go into each subregional with confidence that we can do it well. We just want to do it each time better than the last time.”
Since the NCAA went to its geography-based “pod” system in 2002, which allows top seeds from different regionals to play at the closest site, the in-state host has pulled the elusive Duke-North Carolina double only four times, not since 2012 and never in Raleigh. But that possibility helps grease the gears of the bidding process, even if the rest of the country may grumble about it.
“I suppose there’s some geographic rotation you want to look at it because it is a national tournament, but there’s also some really great basketball that’s played here, exponentially larger numbers than what you’d find in maybe some of the other geographic areas,” Hollis said. “Which would give an advantage to something being in this area on a more frequent basis.”
It’s going to get more difficult in this next bidding cycle. Greenville, S.C., Columbia and Charleston are all expected to bid, and can leverage similar geographic advantages to their North Carolina competitors.
That puts extra pressure on N.C. State and the GRSA to do things right, but no more than they put on themselves. So far, that’s been a recipe for success.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Raleigh: Home to NCAA events
Recent and future NCAA championships hosted by the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance (with host university, Div. I unless noted):
▪ Men’s basketball first and second rounds (N.C. State), 2004, 2008, 2014, 2016, PNC Arena
▪ Women’s basketball first and second rounds/regional (N.C. State), 2006, 2009, PNC Arena
▪ Men’s soccer (N.C. State 2005-09, Campbell 2014), 2005, 2007, 2009, 2014, WakeMed Soccer Park
▪ Women’s soccer (N.C. State 2003-13, Campbell 2015-16), 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2015, 2016, WakeMed Soccer Park
▪ Women’s lacrosse (Campbell), 2017, WakeMed Soccer Park
▪ Div. II baseball (Mt. Olive), 2009-2018, USA Baseball National Training Complex
▪ Div. III tennis (Meredith 2012, TBA 2017), 2012, 2017, Cary Tennis Park