Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams Talks 75 Years Of The CIAA Tournament And How It Impacts The Culture
The CIAA tournament is one of the most sought after annual college events in the country since its inception in 1946, conducting 14 championships and attracting 150,000 fans ranging from fans who would identify with Roddy Ricch and Trae Young to those who tell iconic tales of historic soul acts and when Bernard King ruled the NBA.
The tournament weekend is a testimony to the power of African-American support, stimulating the Charlotte community over its 15-year tenure. In 2019, CIAA was honored as the 2019 Champion of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism by Sports Destination Management.
The conference is composed of iconic Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Bowie State University, Claflin University, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, Johnson C. Smith University, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, Livingstone College, Saint Augustine’s University, Shaw University, Virginia State University, Virginia Union University, and Winston-Salem State University. The conference also houses Chowan University in football and women’s bowling.
Throughout its history, the CIAA celebrates starting in a 2,000 seat Turner Arena in Washington D.C. and turning into a lit and lively experience at the Spectrum Center, an NBA building that hosts the Charlotte Hornets. Prominent figures like Coach Robert Vaughan, Sr., who started the basketball program at Elizabeth City State University and has seen the tournament grow through its entire 75-year run and current commissioner Jacqie McWilliams who became the first African American female commissioner of the NCAA and first female commissioner of the CIAA after winning a championship with Hampton University in 1988 and going on to coach at Virginia Union University. The rich history of the conference also contains well-known hoopers like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Sam Jones, Earl Loyd, Charles Oakley, Fred “Curly” Neal, and Ben Wallace.
The upcoming tournament will be the last in Charlotte. The 15th year in The Queen City aligns with the overall 75th anniversary. Instead of focusing on the closure of a partnership in North Carolina, officials are looking to their new city, Baltimore, as a new setting to continue to serve the tournament’s population. The tasks also include providing a positive impact on the host city. Charlotte knows about that impact, benefitting from more than $500 million in economic stimulus. The tournament not only benefits the host city but provides scholarships to students and provides a one of a kind experience for the student-athletes.
At the end of the month, the CIAA men’s and women’s tournament will take over the Bojangles’ Coliseum and the Spectrum Center bringing in all the rivalries, pageantries and excitement that has made this a must-attend sporting event for three-quarters of a century. Speaking with The Source, commissioner McWilliams detailed the importance of CIAA, the closing of the conference in Charlotte and continuing to build on its history.
This is the 75th year for the CIAA tournament, but it will be the last in Charlotte. This tournament has been a staple for the city and it’s stuck around through some trying events. What does it mean for you to be able to host this here for such a long period of time?
Commissioner McWilliams: We have been in this community for almost 15 years and this would be my eighth tournament running as commissioner Charlotte. For me, it shows we’ve been able to establish a relationship, not just for the game of basketball, but a relationship in the community that was not just partnerships but also friendships. I think that’s important when you’re in a host city to have the right people around the table to help you manage expectations for an event this large. And it’s taken some time. We’ve gone through different transitions of how we’ve managed tickets. We’ve changed partners with our media sponsor. We’ve done a lot of things in my eight years that have impacted some of our growth in a good way but also caused shakeups and we had to change our way of thinking. When you’re in a city this long, it just demonstrates that people are on board. It’s like being in a family, you’ll have challenges. But I think we’ve been able to define what those opportunities are the best that we can in this partnership.
Heading into this tournament, was there anything you wanted to do to honor the city in departure?
We knew this would be the 15th year [in Charlotte]. We’re engaging the community, whether it’s in-venue or out and expanding on what will happen on the 75th anniversary. If you’ve been watching our social media and the videos that we and the NCAA have put out our reach is all over the country right now and I think that alone has allowed Charlotte to be quite visible just in being a part of this partnership in a very organic way. We’re always going to engage our business community and think broadly about how we remain inclusive. So you’ll see during our tournament how we include city officials, the governor, people who have really made an impact in the state of North Carolina in our programming.
There was a decision made to move to a new city, Baltimore, was there any restraint to the relocation?
No, I don’t think there was restraint. Before we even out went out to bid, there was a great discussion about whether we wanted to go out to bid or extend. I have a very different board from the board that agreed to extend the original six-year agreement in Charlotte. This board is very progressive thinking and I want to make sure that we have fair processes for all of our events and also want us to think about resetting ourselves. What does that look like and what could a new agreement look for look like for CIAA? Whether it stayed in Charlotte or whether it went to another city as you see Baltimore. The reset has us look at how to enhance those opportunities for our student-athletes mostly, but also, a way to engage a demographic of fans and how a community can do that. So I won’t say hesitant but open to see what would happen if we moved, we were in Virginia before here. As event managers and planners, we can run an event anywhere.
CIAA has provided a platform for athletes that were at one point looked over by other conferences and the NCAA. How do you continue to refocus the purpose and staying relevant in a basketball market where there are many options to choose from for a sports experience?
The community of sports never changes. The game of basketball evolves by players and the look and the field on the court, how fast they’re moving. You know, same thing with volleyball, track and field. The athletes get better and better. That question is good to ask because the relevancy remains if you want to build out beyond the game, that’s the piece. How do you stay relevant and up to speed with the fans, the alumni, those who have invested more than 50, 60 years for this tournament? And then we actually have Coach Vaughan who has been with this tournament 75 years, which is absolutely incredible to me. How do we keep it relevant for the young, the students?
Technology is moving so fast. So it is not an easy task, but you gotta have the right partners and the right people around the table. That’s why diversity inclusion of thought and people are so important in understanding CIAA and the culture that we live in.
What are you hoping attendees take away from CIAA from historically and as an experience?
Wow. I hope that they take away that CIAA truly is a place where culture, the love of community and the love of HBCUs. I want them to know hat they made an investment that was worth their time and week.
When I go to Disneyland and I’m not trying to promote Disney, but when I go to Disney, I’m kind of upset about maybe at the beginning that all this money I’m paying to go for that amount of time. But when I leave Disney, I felt like they cared about me. I felt like they knew my name. They gave me access and they made my family feel like you can’t wait to get back. I hope our fans feel like when they come to the CIAA from going to the game, going to the convention center, having their kids in an event, that everything that we did around this time makes them want to come back after again and again and again.
The upcoming CIAA Tournament will host some of the best basketball talent in country but the weekend’s events won’t stop there. Across Charlotte the hottest artists in the game will be present, the dopest events will be going down and a ton more that will be of the culture.