Sunday, Mar. 21, 2010

Morris: Flag still costs state NCAA spotlight

The big winners during the first weekend of the NCAA men’s tournament were Buffalo, Jacksonville, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Providence, San Jose and Spokane.

The biggest loser: Columbia.

Let’s first hear from the winners and what it means for them to welcome eight teams and their legions of fans to their cities for a three- or four-day period.

Ron Morris
Columnist
rmorris@thestate.com
(803) 771-8432

The greater Spokane, Wash., area has a population of approximately 417,000 – about 200,000 fewer than greater Columbia. Spokane’s Veterans Memorial Arena seats 12,000 fans – about 6,000 fewer than Colonial Life Arena.

Yet the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament were played in Spokane two months after the same city and same building played host to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"These type of things really speak to the capabilities of a second-tier, not-so-well-known community," said Harry Sladich, president of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It says, ‘Wow! How did you get that? It’s amazing. I didn’t know you were that big.’ It’s just a real ice-breaker for me when I’m talking to people about hosting or coming to our community."

Sladich figures approximately $3.5 million flowed into Spokane this weekend from fans visiting for the tournament. Of course, Chamber of Commerce estimates are vastly inflated. Still, even if it is $2 million, it represents an infusion of cash that is helpful to any community in difficult economic times.

Providence also realized this weekend the economic benefits of bringing fans from all over the country to its Rhode Island city.

"I know the hotel bookings are up," said Bethany Costello, a spokesperson for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, who estimated $3.5 million in economic activity for the city. "From our perspective, there are people here who are eating in our restaurants, they’re shopping in our stores, and we’re really excited."

Buffalo, N.Y., has history with NCAA tournaments, having hosted early round games in 2000, ’04 and ’07. The latter generated an estimated $4.5 million, and this year’s event likely produced more revenue for the city.

Hadley Horrigan, a spokesperson for the Buffalo/Niagara Partnership, said the benefits of the tournament to a city reach far beyond money.

"Buffalo is a city that has people coming to it with preconceived notions, whether it’s our weather or our economy," Horrigan said. "When people get here, what they find is that the sun is shining and the people who live here are wonderful hosts.

"We throw great parties, and there are things from architecture to sports to a beautiful waterfront to enjoy. Any time we can bring people to town, we are able to show people a side of Buffalo that they might not have imagined when they are sitting in their hometown."

The state of South Carolina should take note. Instead of earmarking $8 million for destination-specific tourism through the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, as it did this fiscal year, the state could push for an NCAA tournament and enjoy the economic benefits.

With television coverage, the state and host city gain immeasurable national exposure, the kind of promotion neither could afford to purchase through advertising.

Ike McLeese, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the city has garnered unprecedented national publicity from USC’s recent spate of Thursday night football games televised by ESPN. Consecutive appearances by the ESPN "GameDay" crew from 2004-06 also were an exposure boon for Columbia, according to McLeese.

"It actually offsets some of the craziness that comes out of here," McLeese said. "I won’t be any more specific than that, but it offsets some of that. Some of the things we get the national headlines for are not representative of the day-to-day Columbia life.

"From an image standpoint, it’s the same thing as not having the Panthers play their inaugural season here (in 1995). It was an opportunity missed to showcase what we have here."

Most sports fans forget USC pitched the possibility of hosting NCAA basketball tournaments when it sought financial backing from the city of Columbia and nearby counties to build Colonial Life Arena. That was in 2002.

Perhaps USC did not take seriously a South Carolina NAACP boycott – supported by the NCAA – that blocks postseason tournaments with predetermined sites from being played in the state. That boycott was initiated in 2000 when the Confederate flag was moved from atop the Statehouse dome to the grounds below.

The flag flies there today, flapping in the face of progress for the state of South Carolina and the city of Columbia, and continuing to stand in the way of such economic windfalls as an NCAA tournament.

Sadly, that’s the way our state legislature wants it.

On The Web:   http://www.thestate.com/2010/03/21/1209711/morris-for-sunday.html