Frank Martin: NCAA tournament is a window to showcase Columbia
Some 25,000 people and $9 million are expected to pour into Columbia when the city hosts the first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Colonial Life Arena in March, local tourism officials predict.
The five-day event won’t draw nearly as many tourists as the city saw in 2017 for the total solar eclipse, when an estimated 400,000 people traveled to Columbia and made a $48 million economic impact, according to Columbia tourism officials.
But the city and the University of South Carolina are looking to the tournament as an extended opportunity to boost both their national profiles.
“Being able to host an NCAA first and second round comes with the cache that this is a basketball town. More than just football can survive here,” said Charles Bloom, an associate athletic director at USC. “You’re going to get recognized. And you dribble past the court and you see ‘Columbia’ on the floor, that means a lot as well.”
A little more than 2,000 tickets remain for the first- and second-round tournament games at Colonial Life Arena on March 22 and 24, said Scott Powers, director of Columbia’s sports tourism agency. The eight teams that will play in Columbia will be announced March 17.
It’s been nearly 50 years since Columbia last hosted NCAA men’s tournament games. The delay was caused in part by a ban imposed by the NCAA in 2000 on most post-season events in South Carolina. The ban was imposed because the state displayed a Confederate flag on the State House grounds. The ban was lifted after the flag was removed in 2015.
But the city and USC are no strangers to events that draw large numbers of out-of-town visitors — consider USC football games, which can host some 80,000 fans, or NCAA baseball regionals and super regionals that have been hosted numerous times in Columbia. The NCAA’s ban did not apply to sports such as baseball and softball that each season award early-round playoff sites to the best teams.
“We’re lucky, as compared to a lot of cities, having the University of South Carolina football team, having the folks that travel year in and year out for those seven (home) games,” Powers said. “Our hotels, our police department — they’ve been doing this for a while.”
But the NCAA men’s basketball tournament adds an extra layer of recognition, being one of the most high-profile sporting events in the nation and known worldwide, Powers said.
Columbia is taking inspiration from some other cities that have hosted recent NCAA tournament games to plan logistics, including distributing copious flyers and posters detailing special events, maps of the city and information such as items prohibited at Colonial Life Arena.
Officials also hope to head off parking and traffic headaches by offering free off-site parking and shuttles from two locations that will be announced soon.
Some local businesses are planning special events coordinated with the tournament, such as a “Steel Hands Shootout” at Steel Hands Brewing in Cayce and a “Hoops and Hops” event at Liberty Taproom in the Vista, said Kelly Barbrey, a spokesperson for the Experience Columbia SC tourism group.
The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center will host a free fan fest on the Thursday and Friday of the tournament, and Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens plans to offer special admission prices, among other events that are planned throughout the city.
The entire extended event is being designed to boast Columbia’s assets to tens of thousands of visitors.
“We’re so happy and so excited to show anybody that’s never been to Columbia before or hasn’t been for a while what we have to offer,” Powers said.