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Inside Events: The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association

7 Feb, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams

Founded in 1912, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) is the first African American athletic conference and one of the most recognized conferences in Division II. The CIAA conducts 16 championships attended by more than 150,000 fans from around the country. Headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, the conference represents both private and public colleges and universities with enrollments ranging from 750 to over 8,000 students.

Of all the championships produced by the CIAA, its annual basketball tournament is the largest, having evolved from a 2,000-seat sell-out in Washington, D.C. during the inaugural tournament, into an event attracting over 190,000 fans during the course of the week, and is now touted as the third-highest-attended basketball tournament among all NCAA divisions. 

Over the past 10 years, the CIAA has generated over $325 million in economic impact for the Charlotte, also known as the “Queen City,” while annually generating over $55 million for the host city. With the support of the City of Charlotte and CIAA corporate partners such as Coca-Cola USA, Nationwide, Food Lion, Toyota and Russell Athletic, the conference has secured over $20 million in scholarship dollars for its member institutions over the past 13 years, averaging $1.5 million annually.

Websites:  theciaa.com and CIAATournament.org

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Sports Destination Management: This is a big year for the CIAA.

Jacqie McWilliams: Yes, it’s the celebration of 125 years of black college football. That first game was played between Johnson C. Smith University and Livingstone College in 1892 ; in fact, those two colleges still play together each year.

SDM: Where was this year’s football championship played?

McWilliams: It was played in Salem, Virginia, which did a really good job in hosting us and really engaging the community. We were able to create an opportunity for a high school day, and we had over 250 students attending that. About 154 of those students had committed to attend one of our colleges, and of those, about 30 had scholarships.

SDM: And yet, the basketball tournament is still bigger. It’s held in Charlotte, North Carolina.

McWilliams: Yes – it’s the largest tournament in the state and the third-largest basketball tournament in terms of attendance.

SDM: It has a lot of ancillary events around it.

McWilliams: There are a lot of other activities: entertainment, education, community engagement – there is a lot of exposure for our community. We have events focusing on women, on minorities in small business, a day for middle school students – sometimes, I feel like if people saw our schedule, they’d wonder when we had time to put on a tournament.

SDM: Are all those events held in hotel ballrooms around the city?

McWilliams: Through our partnership with Charlotte, we have access to the convention center and we have that space available to us throughout the week.

SDM: This year, there will be some new events as well.

McWilliams: We have a special ‘homecoming’ theme and our new CIAA Celebrity Charity Basketball Game. We are working with a promotor for the first time, and we’d like to get some more Millennials inside the arena.

SDM: What is CIAA looking for when it’s seeking a home for its tournaments?

McWilliams: We look for a location that has great facilities. I have had the pleasure of working with the NCAA and seeing what they look for in terms of the student athlete experience. We have a great championship team and their job is to locate sites for our championships. We try to rotate them every two to three years. If you change the location every year, it can be hard to build momentum. We also look for cities that have things going on outside the field because we’d like people to be able to explore the community they are in. We’re always looking for the unique places they can go and things they can do.

SDM: Do you try to work with the city’s tourism officials?

McWilliams: Yes – I love working with them. I always tell my team, ‘Find out who the sports commission or convention and visitors bureau is because they can be such a great resource.’

SDM: How many room nights does the basketball tournament use?

McWilliams: We had just over 1,100 room nights last year. It was a huge undertaking. We’re accommodating all our teams, both men’s and women’s, plus our operations staff, plus teams’ cheer and bands, administrators, sponsors – it’s a lot.

SDM: And the economic impact for the basketball championship for one year is what?

McWilliams: I’d say it would be about $50 million. That’s overall economic impact. Indirect impact last year was $47.4 million, and $24 millin in direct economic impact. There is a huge value to Charlotte in hosting.

SDM: Is it well attended by families too?

McWilliams: Yes, it’s almost a family legacy. You’ll see grandparents bringing their great-grandchildren; it’s not all local people from Charlotte.

SDM: It sounds like it’s almost a community in itself.

McWilliams: There is a lot of pride, both in who the CIAA is and in the historically black colleges and universities that are part of it. The economic impact of the championships is huge, but you have to consider what our alumni members are doing across the country as leaders as well. For me, just being a part of this conference is extremely special and an honor. I think our tournaments and our championships are a way to tell our story across the country, and every time we visit a city, we like to think we have left our footprint there.

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