With 25,000 basketball fans heading to town, Columbia’s ready to show off

Frank Martin: NCAA tournament is a window to showcase Columbia

The first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament will be held in Columbia at the Colonial Life Arena in March.
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The first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament will be held in Columbia at the Colonial Life Arena in March.

Columbia is about to find out exactly why they call it March Madness.

College basketball fans are a special kind of wild, and South Carolina’s capital is prepared to welcome some 25,000 of them for the first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament next week.

The size of the crowds likely will depend on which eight teams get slated for Columbia. Duke and North Carolina have been floated as possible Columbia candidates, and their fan bases are expected to travel particularly well.

“We’re extremely excited, because we feel like we’re going to get a really good field of teams,” said Bill Ellen, president and CEO of the Experience Columbia SC tourism authority, which has been preparing for months to show off the city during the tournament. “Either one of those teams (Duke or North Carolina) and several other teams will draw fans to Columbia that might not even buy a ticket but will just hang out in sports bars and be part of the excitement.”

It’s possible Columbia could host two No. 1 seeds, two No. 8s, two No. 9s and two No. 16s, Ellen said.

The city will learn its lot during the NCAA tournament selection show Sunday at 6 p.m. There will be a watch party and live analysis at Tin Roof in the Vista starting at 5:30 p.m.

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Playing March Madness host is Columbia’s biggest role on the national stage since 2017’s total solar eclipse, when an estimated 400,000 visitors flocked to the area.

The NCAA tournament will bring considerably fewer visitors than the eclipse, but the basketball fans will be spending more days in town.

Earlier this year, tourism officials estimated the tournament could give the city’s economy a $9 million boost.

“Eyes will be on Columbia, S.C., and it will be a really wonderful opportunity to share with the rest of the world what we already know,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “Columbia’s an incredible city.”

It’s been 49 years since the NCAA men’s tournament, one of the most popular sporting events in the country, last came to town. The city’s long tournament drought was due in part to the NCAA’s 15-year ban on most post-season events in South Carolina. It was lifted in 2015 after the Confederate flag was removed from the S.C. State House grounds.

“I don’t want people to think this is just about great basketball,” Benjamin said. “This is about us taking a major step forward in civil rights. You can do the right thing and be rewarded for it.”

Here are a few things you might need to know about the tournament in Columbia:

When are things happening?

On Thursday, the eight teams each will hold open practice throughout the day — a free, first-come-first-served event — at Colonial Life Arena. And there will be a free fan fest Thursday and Friday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center next door to the arena.

Friday will feature four games at Colonial Life during the afternoon and night. The winners of those games will play in two final games Sunday. All-game tickets are still available for $240 apiece through Ticketmaster.

That leaves Saturday as a free day for thousands of visitors to explore Columbia.

“We’re going to have people that have never experienced (the city), or Columbia has changed since the last time they visited,” Ellen said. “It gives us a chance to showcase what’s going on in the entire region.”

In anticipation of the crowds of visitors and locals alike, dozens of special events are planned across the city, including a free concert outside Tin Roof and The Senate, live music and basketball-watching at the Columbia Museum of Art and a free outdoor showing of the movie “Hoosiers” at the West Columbia riverwalk amphitheater.

Restaurants and bars also are planning basketball-themed food and drink specials throughout the tournament, such as the “Taco Tipoff” at Publico in Five Points and the “Alley-Oop” margarita-and-Corona cocktail at Cantina 76 on Main Street and Devine Street.

What about parking and traffic?

Free satellite parking and shuttles. On open practice and game days, you can park you car at one of these locations and take a free shuttle to Colonial Life Arena, as parking will be limited around the arena.

Gamecock Park, 76 National Guard Road

405 Gervais St., at the corner of Gervais and Huger streets

1308 Rosewood Drive, across from the State Fairgrounds

The shuttles will also pick up outside a dozen downtown hotels.

The shuttles will run from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and will start two hours before the first game begins Sunday and end two hours after the final game ends.

Downtown parking fees. On-street parking meters cost $0.75 per hour. Normal city parking garage rates are up to $10 for a full day.

Special event fees will be charged at some garages during the tournament.

On Thursday, the Park Street garage will be free during the open practice sessions.

On Friday, the Park and Lincoln street garages will charge a flat $30 fee.

On Saturday, the Park and Lincoln street garages will charge a flat $10.

And on Sunday, the Park and Lincoln street garages will charge a flat $30.

Select garage parking spaces can be reserved in advance online through Innovista Parking.

Street closures. Streets around Colonial Life Arena will be closed all day Thursday and Friday in the same patterns as normal USC basketball games.

Greene Street will be closed from Lincoln to Gadsden streets.

Lincoln Street will be closed from College to Greene streets.

Free Soda Cap Connector bus. You’ll find the bright teal and pink buses running between West Columbia, the Vista, Main Street and Five Points from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and two hours before the first game Sunday until two hours after the last game.

How can visitors find information?

Geomarketing. When the eight teams coming to Columbia are announced Sunday night, the tourism authority will employ special technology to send messages to cellphones in those teams’ home cities, telling fans how they can plan their visit to Columbia, Ellen said. And starting Tuesday, the same technology will be used to send information messages to cellphones in downtown Columbia entertainment districts.

Flyers, posters and concierge tables will be set up and distributed at hotels and on shuttles.

This website: www.basketball.columbiascsports.com is a catchall for information about tickets, transportation, things to do in Columbia and more.

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