The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the nation’s oldest historically Black athletic conference, traditionally puts on its tournament this month. And in 2021, after having spent many years in Charlotte, North Carolina, the event was supposed to move to Baltimore.
But while the pandemic had other plans, the CIAA refused to let restrictions put a damper on the events that meant so much to its alumni. And in partnership with Visit Baltimore, the CIAA announced it would host its first-ever virtual tournament.
The highly anticipated week-long celebration was dubbed the CIAA Virtual Vibe: Tournament Edition and takes place from February 23-27, traditionally known as CIAA Basketball Tournament week. The CIAA Virtual Vibe marks the Tournament’s 76th annual celebration of HBCU championship basketball, sports, and culture. The third most attended basketball tournament among all NCAA divisions; it brings a legendary legacy and a community experience to a new, global audience.
The virtual experience, hosted by comedians B. Simone, Darren Brand and Burpie, will also offer a collection of new events, including an Old School/New School DJ Battle presented by Sprite and the CIAA Esports Tournament presented by Bayer Pharmaceuticals. These events, along with performances by national recording artists and celebrity appearances, will celebrate the legacy and tradition of the CIAA and its member institutions while highlighting the nostalgia and cultural significance of the CIAA Tournament.
Free registration for the Tournament is now open on the virtual platform and can be accessed here.
Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams spent time with SDM explaining the event and its goals.
Sports Destination Management: We’ve seen virtual runs and virtual marathons – even virtual trade shows – but this is the first full tournament we’ve seen. When did you start planning it?
Jacqie McWilliams: I think it was all the way back in the spring or summer. We were having our board meeting in May and I remember telling our team that I didn’t know if we were going to be able to play live sports. I’m an optimistic person but the data didn’t look good. We thought, “Well, what are our alternatives? How can we engage our community and our fans if we don’t have a tournament?” And then we started asking, “Well, how about a virtual tournament?” We started to really think about the concept with our partners – what components of the tournament we could offer and how we could do it.
SDM: Did you visit other virtual events to get ideas?
McWilliams: Yes, we did – we spent part of the summer visiting events held on different platforms and getting ideas about how they worked and whether they might be a good idea for our event. We had a goal – whatever we did had to be bigger and better and more engaging than anything else out there. We also had a five-day trial event that we promoted actively on social media. The participation was great. Once we saw that, we knew we could do this.
We had a five-day trial event with a DJ and we were all active in promoting it on social media and the participation was great.
SDM: The site looks really exciting.
McWilliams: It does! Our landing page is fantastic – it’s really just amazing and it does a good job of showing what our tournament is all about.
SDM: You have a lot of events other that just games.
McWilliams: We do. Our tournament week will start just like the regular tournament – we’ll kick off the week with Education Day and we’ll have virtual sessions for Baltimore City schools and other high school students who want to participate – we want to make sure we engage them because that’s a very important part of the tournament.
One of the essential events we offer is CIAA Education Day, and this year, we have made it easier than ever for students to connect with colleges in our network. It will be held February 24. The events will kick off with an opening session that includes tournament leadership and sponsor welcome and remarks, student and teacher recognitions, and a panel discussion and/or inspirational speaker.
In addition to the scheduled program, we will have special presentations honoring students with a minimum 4.0 grade point average and outstanding high school educators. At the conclusion of the event, attendees will have the opportunity to visit the various CIAA institution and educational vendor booths via a virtual platform. These programs are free and open to high school juniors and seniors and school representatives/chaperones.
We also have our Career Expo, and information on that is available here. The CIAA Career Expo is designed to provide organizations the opportunity to meet recent graduates, current students from the CIAA member-schools and other universities, career seekers, and career switchers and recruit for available positions. The CIAA not only has a rich and storied tradition in intercollegiate athletics but has an equally extensive list of alumni who have gone on to make tremendous strides in many different professions.
Employers attend the CIAA Career Expo to increase visibility, illustrate the benefits of employment within their organization, and provide information regarding internships, full-time employment, and post-graduate educational opportunities. For employers, we have a pool of aspiring graduating and recent college graduates, career seekers, and career switchers eager for advancing their futures. Attendees can expect a diverse group of recruiters with a myriad of opportunities awaiting potential employees.
SDM: CIAA is very devoted to its alumni and community.
McWilliams: Our fans are truly loyal to this event. There is a need to connect to the culture of this conference. This is the 76th tournament in our 109-year-old conference. Our history is very important to us and so are the lifelong friendships and connections people have made. Those were things we didn’t want to lose to COVID – and I don’t think we will.
SDM: Losing the chance to meet in person still hurts, though?
McWilliams: It has been tough – I played at Hampton and I have been coming to this conference since I was 18. To not see a tournament happening is difficult but at the same time, it shows us how privileged we have been.
SDM: 2021 would have been your first time in Baltimore – where unfortunately, COVID has resulted in a lot of restrictions on indoor gatherings. Do you regret the decision to move the event there?
McWilliams: We have no regrets at all. I loved being in Charlotte but I think Baltimore will still be a good change for us, even if we’re not having a live tournament. We’re having a lot of fun working with the city and we’ve set up our platform to give you the sense of being in Baltimore. It really is a charmed city. We have a three-year contact to come here and we’re talking about what a possible extension could look like, given that it’s looking like we’re losing a year or two here.
SDM: What is your ultimate goal for the event?
McWilliams: I hope that our fans and people who want to know more about us will take part of this virtual experience. This is an opportunity to bring together our communities. I don’t know another event that will be doing what we are doing. From the youngest child to the most seasoned adult, there’s something for everyone. I’m excited about its potential.