Hosting a March Madness weekend in 2019 will produce a significant payoff for the Columbia area, those who recruited the event say.
The first two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is expected to attract 16,000 attendees and generate $10.6 million in business for hotels, restaurants, bars and other businesses, organizers said Tuesday.
But the games will challenge the Midlands hospitality industry to leave a good impression that sets the stage for conventions afterward, tourism officials say.
Some downtown businesses already are eager to roll out the welcome mat.
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“It’ll be a wonderful experience,” said Terry Davis, co-owner of the Thirsty Fellow Pizzeria and Pub two blocks from Colonial Life Arena. “We’ll figure out a way to deal with it.”
Organizers have set aside 8,900 hotel rooms in Lexington and Richland counties – three-fourths of the 11,600 available today – for teams, officials, NCAA staff, news reporters and fans during the games.
The award of the five-day event came after a two-year effort by business and civic leaders to land it, a drive that started as the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds in July 2015.
Before that, the NCAA banned the state from hosting such championship games because of the banner’s presence at the State House.
The focus of those who brought the games to the Midlands shifts to developing a favorable experience for visitors. “We want to make sure everything is first class,” said Scott Powers, executive director of Experience Columbia SC Sports, the new name for the Columbia Regional Sports Council.
Midlands tourism officials studied their counterparts in Greenville, where the first and second round games of this year’s NCAA men’s tournament were played. “We paid a good bit of attention to what they did,” Powers said.
Doing it well “pays dividends” by sparking interest among attendees in returning with other gatherings, said David Montgomery, vice president of sales at Visit Greenville SC.
“Landing one of these is a big coup,” he said. “It’s great exposure. Make a strong impression and they’ll come back.”
One key is assuring that moving around is convenient for those unfamiliar with the area, he said.
The Vista Guild already is brainstorming additional events in an effort to attract fans to the more than 200 stores, restaurants and bars that are just a few blocks from the arena, Executive Director Meredith Atkinson said.
“We’ll definitely have extra things going on that make it a real fun experience for our out-of-town guests,” she said.
Other venues, such as Riverbanks Zoo, also will be promoted as activities to enjoy between games, Powers said.
Traffic congestion associated with the tournament will be less than that for a University of South Carolina football game but more than that for a sell-out at Colonial Life Arena because many visitors will be unfamiliar with parking around the arena, he said.
USC has hosted playoff games in sports that award tournament sites based on a team’s merits. For example, the baseball team, which won national championships in 2010 and 2011, hosted several super regionals before the NCAA ban was lifted.
But getting the go-ahead for the initial rounds of March Madness in the Midlands for the first time since 1970 was a long-sought goal.
“The prestige of this thing is just so huge,” said Chris Stone, president of Visit Greenville SC. “Being nice is in South Carolina’s DNA. But make sure your welcome mat is polished.”
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
By the numbers
Impact of a weekend of March Madness games in 2019, estimated by Experience Columbia SC Sports:
Retail spending: $2.2 million
Travel, lodging, other recreation: $1.9 million each
Restaurants and bars: $1.8 million
Parking, space rental, other services: $930,000