Three years ago, Greenville saw an opportunity — but it had to hustle if it was to end its 15-year walk in the March Madness wilderness.
North Carolina was arguing over bathrooms.
Thus, the governing body of college athletics was looking for new host sites for the first and second rounds of its men’s basketball tournament, one of the nation’s brightest sports stages and a billion-dollar moneymaker.
Suddenly, Greenville was on the clock. And with possibly as much to lose as to gain.
Leaders had been preparing a long-term bid to host a tournament at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena ever since the National Collegiate Athletics Association ended its boycott of the state upon the legislature’s removal of the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in 2015.
This was an opportunity to show, not tell. The bid was put together within mere days.
The rest is history.
This week, Greenville was awarded early rounds for both the 2026 men’s tournament and the 2023 women’s. The city already is set to host the men in 2022 and, if not for the coronavirus, would have hosted the women this past spring.
The audition, it turns out, meant everything.
“We over-delivered in 2017, in a very short amount of time,” Beth Paul, the arena’s general manager, told The Post and Courier this week. “We will reap the benefits of putting together that bid within a matter of days for years to come. We knew the long-term impact was there. We had no choice but to be successful.”
The city fared better than its neighbor 90 minutes down Interstate 26.
Columbia was successful in hosting the first and second rounds of the men’s tournament in 2019 but bricked on its bid for future tournaments, which came as a shock to those involved.
“We are extremely disappointed,” Scott Powers, executive director of Experience Columbia SC Sports, told The Post and Courier. “We worked hard on our bid, we thought we put our best foot forward, and I don’t know why.”
What was lost?
In Greenville, the city estimates the 2022 men’s tournament will have a $5.3 million economic impact.
For perspective, before the last-second score in 2017, Greenville last hosted the men’s tournament in 2002.
Two years earlier, the legislature had compromised on taking the Confederate battle flag off the Statehouse dome by planting it in a prominent spot right on Gervais Street.
The NCAA refused to allow any future awards for events at predetermined sites after they agreed to honor the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s boycott.
The 2002 event, which had already been approved, received high praise from fans, players and coaches, like Duke University’s coach Mike Krzysewski.
But it wouldn’t matter.
Not until the flag was removed entirely in June 2015 — weeks after a white supremacist proclaiming a race war killed nine black parishioners in Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel church.
March 19, 2017: No. 7 seed South Carolina Gamecocks guard Sindarius Thornwell (0) pulls up for a short jumper in an NCAA Tournament game against the No. 2 seed Duke Blue Devils at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, SC. (Artie Walker/Special to the Aiken Standard)
The opportunity for 2017 arrived as North Carolina’s legislature argued over the HB2 “bathroom bill,” which restricted which public restroom transgender people could use and otherwise limited protections for LGBTQ people.
The NCAA stripped North Carolina cities Greensboro and Charlotte of their hosting rights for the first two rounds of March Madness. It lifted the ban after the state reached a compromise — a few weeks after the show that was supposed to be put on in Greensboro was pulled off in Greenville to great fanfare.
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The tournament featured eventual national champion North Carolina and the upset of Duke by South Carolina, which advanced to the school’s first-ever Final Four.
The bid was put together in a matter of days, with collaboration between the arena, Furman University, the Southern Conference, the city of Greenville and its tourism marketing bureau, VisitGreenvilleSC.
It was a monumental task. The arena had to be available — it was — and organizers needed to house, feed and manage the coming and going of about 42,000 people.
“They made magic happen in that building,” David Montgomery, vice president of sales for VisitGreenvilleSC, told The Post and Courier this week.
In the days following the tournament, Greenville aimed to pull it off again for the period between 2019-22.
Columbia was awarded the 2019 men’s regional, Greenville 2022.
In addition to the men, Greenville secured bids for the women’s regional in 2020 and 2023. The city is also host to the women’s Southeastern Conference tournament next year, as it has been the past two. Last March, it was the last major event held in Greenville before the coronavirus shut down sporting venues across the world.
The announcement this week of Greenville’s men’s and women’s bid — along with awards in mostly the Upstate but across South Carolina for multiple other sports — is a result, largely, of experience, Mayor Knox White said.
“There’s nothing like being able to demonstrate your ability rather than try to make your case,” White said.
The city heard positive feedback on the fan experience outside the arena, which has become more and more a focus in the sites the NCAA selects, he said. The essence of the experience is walkability and the capacity to accommodate guests in hotel rooms and enough restaurants, White said.
The city has seen an explosion of hotel rooms downtown since the last tournament, which the mayor said even during the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed terribly.
In 2017, downtown Greenville had about 1,300 rooms. By the next time the men’s tournament returns in 2022, should have at least 2,300. In 2014, downtown had close to 900 rooms.
In Columbia, Powers, of Experience Columbia SC Sports, said that the NCAA had increased its criteria in the time since the city hosted the men’s regional in 2019, particularly in the realm of hotels.
“I don’t know if that’s where we fell short, but looking through the list of all the cities, most of them were new, larger, NBA/NHL arenas for the first and second rounds, which hasn’t been the case for recent years,” he said.
In Greenville, the tourism bureau used the popular pickup basketball phrase “Run It Back” in its marketing push. The marketing campaign clearly wasn’t the deciding factor, and instead experience was the overriding component, but Greenville left nothing to chance, Montgomery said.
“We’re just trying to get into consideration and fight for relevancy,” Montgomery said. “Hosting these events brings visibility to our community.”
The three major NCAA tournaments upcoming — men in 2022 and 2026, and the women in 2023 — will combine for a $17 million economic impact, he said.
By the time 2022 comes around, the expectation is that the coronavirus will be under control and events can go on as planned, which gives the hospitality industry something to hold out for during the current economic crisis.
“It’s a huge shot in the arm for our hospitality community that’s flat on its back right now because of COVID,” Montgomery said. “It just gives them light at the end of the tunnel.”
In the short term, the questions remain about the near-term possibility of the SEC women’s tournament this coming March, and whether it and other events at the arena will actually happen.
The general manager said the arena will press ahead with events, such as games in December for the Swamp Rabbits, Greenville’s minor league hockey team.
The arena has put together a re-opening plan that has been approved and hopes by March the tournament and other events can proceed.
“There’s still a lot that is unknown,” Paul said. “But from an arena perspective, we’re prepared to host events again, and I know we can to do it in a very safe way. The experience will feel and look different, but we’ll still be able to be successful.”
Reporter David Cloninger contributed.