What's Driving the Bidding Wars for NCAA Championships? | Sports Destination Management

What's Driving the Bidding Wars for NCAA Championships?

Aside from Economic Impact, Plenty of Factors Have Spurred an Increased Interest in Hosting
Feb 10, 2020 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

After months of lead-up and plenty of fanfare, the NCAA closed out its bid submission cycle for hosting championships in the 2022-2023 and 2025-26 academic years.

What seemed like mere minutes later, multiple destinations nationwide announced the numbers of bids they had placed.

And make no mistake, those numbers were impressive. St. Louis Sports Commission noted it had submitted 51 applications to host. Greater Orlando Sports Commission announced a total of 68 championship bids in 11 different sports across all three divisions. The Greater Raleigh area, led by NC State University and the Town of Cary with a host of key regional partners, submitted 55 bids.

And those were just a few.

Unfortunately, NCAA doesn’t comment at this point on the number of bids received – or whether it’s up or down, compared to previous years.

“Once we announce the upcoming sites, we’ll include all details in that release,” notes Gail Dent, associate director of public and media relations for the NCAA.

Don’t hold your breath. From March through August, the NCAA will deliberate bids, with recommendations due in September. Hosts and sites will be announced on October 23, 2020.

But if you go by previous announcements, it’s clear there’s an upward trend at work in terms of the number of bids submitted. In 2017, the NCAA announced it had selected 613 host sites for preliminary rounds and finals of predetermined championships in Divisions I, II and III to be held from 2017-18 through 2021-22. (The NCAA noted it had received more than 3,000 bid submissions from member schools, conferences, sports commissions and cities vying to host 86 of the 90 championships that were up for grabs).

Compare that to back in 2013 when the NCAA announced out of an original pool of 1,984 submissions, 523 sites have been awarded as hosts for 82 of its 89 championships for the 2014-18, making it the largest collection of host site announcements at that time in the association’s history.

Clearly, there’s a cache (and of course, economic impact) that comes with being selected as an NCAA sport – but what else is at work here, and how is it driving the trend?

To find that out, it’s imperative to look at the repercussions from previous hosting awards. Back in 2017, Oklahoma City was one of the few sports centers that – to the surprise of many – wound up with bupkis after making multiple bids during the cycle. And when a reporter from The Oklahoman asked Tim Brassfield, (then executive director of the now defunct organization, Oklahoma City All-Sports), and Mike Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City CVB, for any insights on the oversight, they noted a few key drivers that had, in their estimation, led to the city being left out – and none of them had to do with any shortcomings of the city itself.

More competition: Whereas once, only cities of a certain size had facilities suitable for NCAA competition, that’s no longer the case. The nationwide arms race to build bigger and better venues for just about every sport has given the NCAA more options to choose from – even in cities with a smaller population.

NCAA's willingness to consider other venues: Brassifeld and Carrier noted that the NCAA, in awarding its wrestling championships, selected a football stadium (U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis). The article noted: “The NCAA looks to be dabbling with wrestling using the Final Four model — put an arena event in a football stadium to increase seating capacity, ticket sales and revenues generated.” This out-of-the-box thinking on the part of NCAA opens the doors to more cities putting in bids.

Dedicated funds: Many of the cities now bidding on NCAA events have funds, both public and private, to bolster the bid fees that they offer, sweetening the deal.

What else drives the trend in all cities, and across all NCAA championships? Plenty. Just review the landscape of the sports business industry and you'll find a host of additional factors that have folded into the uptick in bids:

More championships are available: In addition to women’s beach volleyball moving from an Emerging Sport for Women to a full championship sport in 2014, there are other sports that have followed a similar path over the last two decades, including women’s rowing (which became a championship sport in 1999), women’s ice hockey (2001), women’s water polo (2001) and women’s bowling (2004) – all bringing more attention to those sports, creating a need for more regional and local events, and ultimately driving further engagement with the NCAA among potential host sites.

Changes to championship awards: In some cases, the NCAA is combining awards made to cities; Atlanta will host men's DI, DII and DIII basketball in 2020, and all three women's divisions will play in Dallas in 2023, creating a better experience for athletes in DII and DIII schools -- who generally don't get as much attention. That type of award (which was first done in 2013) increases impact exponentially and drives the bidding process in future years.

Changes at the NCAA level: In 2019, the NCAA overturned its longstanding policy prohibiting championships from taking place in states that offer regulated gambling options. And that has given cities like Las Vegas the option to bid on championships.

Changes at the destination level: Over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of destinations make changes that have resulted in their ability to bid once again. In 2015, South Carolina took down the Confederate flag from its state capitol grounds and was awarded several events by the NCAA. In 2017, North Carolina repealed HB2, the state’s controversial “bathroom bill,” and was welcomed back to the hosting table. (Worth noting: In fall of 2017, NCAA stated it would "continue to ban championships in states where governments display the Confederate battle flag and at schools that use hostile and abusive Native American imagery.")

More viewing options: Not all national championships make it to network TV, and even fewer are able to be seen during prime viewing hours. But with more options for viewers to stream events – and with it being easier and more inexpensive than ever for destinations to allow for streaming – the potential for exposure is enormous.

It’s a marketing plus: Destinations that have applied for NCAA site selection, and who announce that they have done so, are not just showing they have excellent venues that conform to the highest level of collegiate competition specifications. They're proving they also have the ability to service these events and to publicize them, something that can be of use to another event owner considering the destination. In addition, publicizing the number of events a destination is bidding on sends a veiled message: lock in your plans now because rooms and facilities might become more scarce as a result of a win down the road.

On the horizon: In the future, we’re likely to see the trend continue. Up-and-coming Emerging Sports for Women such as triathlon and rugby are seen as having a strong chance of graduating to championship sports within the next few years, and if that is the case, we can expect more events coming up for bid. (Two newly-named women’s emerging sports, wrestling and tumbling & acrobatics, will likely drive the bidding process among destinations with indoor facilities, should they become championships as well). Equestrian is still lobbying to become an Emerging Sport for Women in Division III (it has acceptance in Divisions I and II) and should that happen, it will move closer to championship status, and success at that level could drive an uptick in interest from established horse sport destinations. 

What else? it's possible we may see even more championships come into play – and more bids coming in as a result. Bass fishing, currently a club sport, is growing tremendously at the college level, and it's possible it will fall under the auspices of the NCAA sooner rather than later. And while the NCAA has taken a hard pass on governing esports, it’s likely to rethink the matter in a few years, and that could lead to even more bids.

The ripple effect of championships extends beyond the NCAA: The meteoric rise of women’s beach volleyball – and its subsequent lock-in as a championship event (with national TV coverage, no less) led to the establishment of more programs and the construction of an increased number of facilities, which allowed more destinations to host regional events as well as exhibition matches. It also drove interest in the sport outside the NCAA framework. The recent announcement that women’s beach volleyball was becoming a varsity sport at the NJCAA level has created even more of a demand, and it is expected that we can see more growth there as well.

There are quite a few calendar pages between now and October 23. It will be interesting to see what happens in the meantime.

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