Envisioning the NCAA Tournament in Columbia: What it takes to get ready for March

NCAA Tournament will have a ‘huge impact on Columbia’

Scott Powers, executive director of the Columbia Regional Sports Council, looks ahead to March Madness coming to Colonial Life Arena.
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Scott Powers, executive director of the Columbia Regional Sports Council, looks ahead to March Madness coming to Colonial Life Arena.

Scott Powers could have witnessed history with his own two eyes. When UMBC shocked Virginia to become college basketball’s first No. 16 seed to take down a No. 1 in the NCAA Tournament, Powers could have been in Charlotte to watch it all unfold.

Instead he saw the Retrievers take down the Cavaliers from a hotel room in Wichita, Kansas.

Powers is the executive director for the Columbia Regional Sports Council. He’s a key figure behind the Big Dance coming to Colonial Life Arena in 2019. In order to prepare for such an occasion, he, along with three University of South Carolina staff members, was scheduled to take a site visit to the Spectrum Center last March for first- and second-round games.

“The NCAA likes to send you to the closest site,” Powers said.

But while the three USC staffers made the short drive north, Powers requested to go west.

“I wanted to go to Wichita because I think Wichita had more in common with Columbia than Charlotte did,” Powers said. “Charlotte being an NBA city, it’s in an NBA arena. Wichita is more of a college town with Wichita State there. Similar size arena, age of arena, downtown, river. There’s a lot of similarities between here and Wichita.”

So Powers observed the action both in and around Intrust Bank Arena. Eight schools – Kansas, Penn, Seton Hall, N.C. State, Houston, San Diego State, Michigan and Montana – participated in the Wichita regional.

The goal of Powers’ trip was to envision Columbia in a similar climate. CLA is hosting March 22-24 – and it’s going to take all of the Midlands to make it a rewarding experience.

South Carolina men's basketball coach Frank Martin reacts to Colonial Life Arena being chosen as a host site for the NCAA Tournament in 2019.

“Groups of people were walking around in their college attire,” Powers said. “It happens here a lot, but it’s usually Gamecocks and then whoever’s the visiting team. In the NCAA Tournament, you got eight different fan groups.

“And then every street pole had a banner on it. Welcome banners. Every window had a welcome sign in it. Restaurants had specials. Bars had specials. It was just everybody was exciting they were hosting it.

“I know Kansas is a basketball state, so it shouldn’t have been surprising to me. But I was blown away.”

Five months from now, Powers is hopeful his city gets a similar reaction from visitors. The trip to Wichita was one thing, the next is getting complete area organization.

Powers holds a “community engagement” meeting once a month at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. It’s open to all-comers – the next is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 – but is catered to local business personnel.

“People attending are some of our restaurant people,” Powers said, “hotel people, business owners, as well as the entertainment districts – the Five Points Association, the Vista Guild, the Main Street Merchants Associations, the zoo, the museum of art, all those different things.”

David Erbacher, director of sales and marketing for Hyatt Place in the Vista, has been a regular to Powers-led get-togethers. His is one of nine area “host hotels” in partnership with the NCAA Tournament.

“For me,” Erbacher said, “say you see an Elton John farewell tour coming in March. As a hotel, we might look at our rates and occupancy based on what the market trends are doing, but we don’t really worry about meetings and presentations.

“It’s just kind of normal day-to-day operations where the NCAA Tournament’s being taken to a whole new level that I think, in return, will make the guests have a better experience in all of Columbia, not just my hotel.”

Powers said 3,300 nights have already been booked – across the nine host hotels – for incoming teams, media and staff.

Powers is projecting the NCAA Tournament could generate up to $9 million for the Columbia region. It’s an estimate, though, because specific teams – and fan bases – coming here won’t be known until March 17, Selection Sunday.

Should South Carolina make the Big Dance, it’s not allowed to play at CLA, per NCAA rules. Popular programs such as Duke and North Carolina, however, have a strong chance of coming here. Top seeds in each region normally play the tournament’s first two rounds at the closest neutral site. Of the eight sites available, Columbia (at roughly 235 miles) is the closest to N.C.’s Research Triangle.

“That would be the ultimate goal to have those two ACC schools,” Powers said of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, a duo ranked among the top 10 in most preseason polls. “If we get Duke and North Carolina, all those fans are going to come. It’s an easy trip to make. Columbia’s a really inexpensive place for them to come to.”

Greenville, an NCAA Tournament host in 2017, had Duke, UNC and South Carolina among its visitors. The city reported an estimated financial impact of $3.6 million.

South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell (0) is fouled by Duke guard Grayson Allen (3) during their 2017 game in Greenville. Gerry Melendez

“We visited them,” Powers said. “We visited with the folks at Visit Greenville. Even though they’re technically one of our competitors in the tourism business, they were very open, very welcoming, told us what they learned, told us some of the things we may want to think about. And I think the Southern Conference up there in Furman also shared some things with the University of South Carolina about hosting. So that was something that helped us a great deal.

“Greenville did a really good job of hosting, so we have to make sure that they come away really impressed with how well we did.”

Powers is pushing for volunteers and signage.

“We hope to have representatives throughout the region so somebody doesn’t walk more than a block without somebody there to answer a question,” Powers said. “If Tin Roof is doing something, we’re making sure that signage points to something about the NCAA Tournament. Same thing with Main Street and so on.

“I think we’re going to oversignage without overcomplicating things. What’s that signage going to look like? What’s the message without trying to overload people? We’re doing all of that, as far as décor, window dressing type for the city and making sure that everybody comes into town and has a good time.”

This will be Columbia’s first time hosting the NCAA Tournament since 1970. The goal is to not have another five-decade wait.

The city can host again in 2023.

“We need to make sure that we do our best,” Powers said. “And then moving forward, we tell that story of what we did well, what we learned, how we can improve. And hopefully that makes a difference moving forward.”