NCAA Tourney to Bring Thousands of Fans, Millions of Dollars to the State

Richard Breen

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

The appearance of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Columbia this March will cause a convergence of blue bloods, red carpets and green – lots of green.

Organizers estimate the economic impact of the event could be as high as $9 million, depending on which teams get invited to play at Colonial Life Arena March 22 and 24.

“No question it’s new money and you’ll have a significant number of people from out of town,” said Dr. Tom Regan, graduate director with the University of South Carolina College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.

USC is the official host of the event, which includes first and second-round games for eight of the teams participating in the 64-team tournament. Experience Columbia SC Sports, the athletics arm of the local convention/tourism marketing organization, prepared the bid that landed March Madness in the Midlands for the first time since 1970.

“I think it was an 82-page proposal that we turned in to the NCAA to host this event,” said Scott Powers, executive director of Experience Columbia SC Sports.

The Division I men’s tourney will play its first two rounds at eight sites spread across the country, from Hartford, Connecticut, to San Jose, California. The NCAA tries to keep teams as close to home as feasible.

The mix of teams invited to Columbia will determine how much money gets spent here, experts say.

“No. 1, it’s which teams are coming and their distance from Columbia,” said Kelly Barbrey, vice president of sales and marketing with Experience Columbia SC. “It’s also how willing their fans are to travel.”

Regan said many USC fans bypassed hotels by day-tripping to Greenville when the Gamecocks played there in the 2017 tourney. He said supporters of universities such as Duke, North Carolina or North Carolina State may take the same approach if invited to Columbia.

“From an economic point of view, it is more favorable if the teams come from farther out of town,” Regan said.

While fans from farther away are more likely to stay overnight, they might be fewer in number. High-profile schools such as Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina will attract throngs wherever they play, regardless of whether fans are spending the night.

“The major, blue-blood college basketball fans, those people are going to come even without a ticket,” Powers said. “We expect to have more people in town than we have tickets to sell.”

Between 20,000-25,000 visitors are expected over the weekend, which begins with a free admission, open practice for each team on Thursday, March 21. There’s also a fan fest March 21-22 inside Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

No games will be played in Columbia on Saturday, March 23, but the Koger Center will put on two performances of the musical “Chicago.” Throughout the extended weekend, local businesses will be rolling out the red carpet with official and unofficial events to welcome fans.

“We have been encouraging our restaurant partners, breweries and attractions,” Barbrey said. “There will be a time when visitors will not be attending games or practices and will want to explore our city.”

As the event draws near, Experience Columbia SC will promote the games, as well as specials at local businesses, via the microsite https://basketball.columbiascsports.com.

It has been a lifetime for many people since USC last hosted March Madness, a nickname that wasn’t attached to the event until the 1980s. The school has experience hosting the women’s basketball tournament, as well as NCAA softball and baseball events, in recent years.

“The intangible thing is if you do a good job, more tournaments will come” to Colonial Life Arena, Regan said. “It’s one of the largest on-campus basketball venues in the country. The bigger the arena, the more revenue.”

The Midlands has also hosted other big visitor events in recent years, from the solar eclipse of 2017 to the Beyonce and Jay-Z concert at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2018.

“The impact will be more along the lines of a big, one-time concert,” Regan said.

Powers visited Greenville in 2017 and Wichita, Kansas, last year to see how those communities handled March Madness.

“It was eye-opening,” he said. One lesson was to not be afraid of overcommunicating, whether it’s information about local attractions, or regulations such as the clear-bag policy at Colonial Life Arena.

Charles Bloom, executive associate athletics director at USC, said 14,000 fans came out for the practice session in Wichita.

“There’s no feeling like having eight different fan bases come to your city,” he said. “It’s a fantastic atmosphere.”