As soon as the flag was taken off the halyard, Scott Powers saw opportunity.
“It made it tough, but I took the job knowing that,” said Powers, the Executive Director at Columbia Regional Sports Council for 12 years. “When I came on, I knew that aspect could hurt us some, but I knew there were so many other grassroots youth events out there. I thought there were other ways for us to make an impact on the community.”
The NCAA’s ban of predetermined championship events in South Carolina because of the Confederate flag cost the state millions in revenue after college conferences – notably, the ACC – also refused to hold postseason tournaments in the state.
Powers, who heads the drive to bring such events to South Carolina in conjunction with the Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Midlands Authority for Convention, Sports and Tourism, knew the flag’s removal from the Statehouse meant an open road for the Midlands to become a major player for any NCAA event.
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He began driving that road the next day.
Powers organized the bid to bring the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to Columbia and Colonial Life Arena, along with consultant Ron Morris and the University of South Carolina. The bid has been submitted for the years 2019-22, and Powers expects to hear extremely good news when the NCAA announces destinations on Dec. 7.
“I’m very confident,” Powers said. “I think Columbia and Greenville will each get one.”
Greenville and Bon Secours Wellness Arena already received the NCAA Tournament for March 2017, after it was pulled out of North Carolina in response to the state’s HB2 law. Columbia considered bidding on that as well, but couldn’t get the hotel rooms to accommodate it, but that won’t deter the 2019-22 selection.
Columbia also bid on the 2017 Division III men’s and women’s tennis championships, offering Cayce’s Tennis and Fitness Center, but the tournament went to Chattanooga, Tenn. Yet Powers is positive Columbia has a solid bid for 2019-22, not just in men’s basketball, but in several sports.
The Midlands has bid on championships in men’s and women’s golf and men’s and women’s tennis. Basketball alone could mean $10-15 million for the city for one weekend; if Columbia could get the other sports, too?
“Anywhere from $10-11 million per year, easy,” said Jason Outman, Executive Director for CMCVB. “Basketball alone is $10.5 million for 2019, and it increases by $150,000 per year. Men’s golf is $329,000 per year, women’s golf is $225,250 per year and men’s and women’s tennis is $516,750 per year.”
The calculations take into account historical data, local taxes, fees, hotel and restaurant rates. Any way one slices it, the Midlands will have a massive financial windfall – although it’s certainly not unexpected.
Bill Ellen, President and CEO of the MACST, coordinates event business in Richland and Lexington counties and saw the creation of the Sports Council from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Columbia began to attract athletes – the Russian rowing team took advantage of the local rivers – and the initiatives quickly sprouted.
“Those events raise our visibility in the city to host these events,” Ellen said.
Columbia didn’t have the facilities at first for major events, but used what it had to begin building a reputation. Northern college crew teams followed the Russian example and begin training on the Broad River while their “home” lakes and rivers were frozen. Youth sports such as BMX bicycle racing, soccer and tennis followed.
The Sports Council also adapted with the times. As children’s interests changed, the Council’s focus did as well.
“Two of the biggest events we’ve had were roller hockey, which was at the Village at Sandhills,” Powers said. “They played 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. for four days. And then we had Quidditch.”
The adapted game from the “Harry Potter” book and movie series has become quite popular, with approximately 200 colleges from across the nation sponsoring it as a club sport. There’s a World Cup every year.
“We met with them three years ago at a trade show. We didn’t have a facility for them to play their World Cup,” Powers said. “We did a great job of building that relationship with them so when we had a facility, they came on board. That was the first event at Saluda Shoals Park. I believe it was 6,500 people that came to town, and around $852,000 as direct visitor spending.”
The flag’s removal meant basketball could return to the state, after it was last held in Greenville in 2001. CLA, which seats 18,000, would be an ideal location for an NCAA regional and Columbia expects to hear its name called for one of the years in 2019-22.
With HB2 still lurking, Columbia could also bid on a 2018 NCAA regional set for Charlotte. Full-service hotels – in the latest example of NCAA particularity, all hotels have to fulfill several requirements, including offering tournament channel TruTV on their room TV sets – have been booked for 2019-22.
Ellen, Powers and Outman are simply waiting for Dec. 7. Their dreams are finally coming true.
“We’ve never been able to say we’ve hosted basketball or other high-profile events,” Powers said. “Hosting them, hosting them well, proving to ourselves that we really can do it, you never know when someone starts thinking, ‘Well, now Columbia can be a great host.’”
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Columbia has bid for several NCAA championships events for 2019-22
2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball First/Second Rounds
2020 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball First/Second Rounds
2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball First/Second Rounds
2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball First/Second Rounds
2019 NCAA Division II Men’s Golf Championship
2021 NCAA Division II Men’s Golf Championship
2022 NCAA Division II Men’s Golf Championship
2019 NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Championship
2021 NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Championship
2022 NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Championship
2019 NCAA Division II Men’s & Women’s Tennis Championship
2021 NCAA Division II Men’s & Women’s Tennis Championship
2022 NCAA Division II Men’s & Women’s Tennis Championship