John A. Carlos II

The first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia on March 22, 2019. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Free Times

COLUMBIA — When the first two rounds of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament came to Columbia in March, it pumped $11.3 million worth of direct spending into the capital city.

That number "exceeded expectations," generating about $2 million more than initial projections, said Bill Ellen, president of the city's convention and tourism arm Experience Columbia SC.

"Those are new dollars coming into our city," said city councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, and it puts the city on the map as one visitors may choose to return to after the tournament ends.

Over the course of four days, nearly 48,000 ticket holders came to town for the college sporting event. The tournament was the highest attended of the regionals held across the country, according to a study by the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.

Hotel occupancy during the week of the event was 81.7 percents, a 1.3 percent increase over the same week in 2018, said Jason Outman of Experience Columbia. Rates during the tournament were up 18.4 percent — $115 per night compared to $97 per night in 2018.

Indirectly, the event brought in $1.38 million in sales and use taxes from businesses, the study found.

"The regional showcased our city and region to many first-time visitors," USC professor Tom Regan, who authored the study, said in a statement. "Columbia needs to use our hospitality and accommodation taxes to market bid and attract similar events annually."

Ellen did not have exact figures for how much was spent to submit the bid to host, but said the cost was "insignificant" compared with the economic impact.

"The NCAA tournament is iconic in status among sports fans; March Madness speaks for itself," said Charles Bloom, executive associate athletics director for the University of South Carolina. "It's a feather in the cap of the city and the university."

John A. Carlos II

The first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia on March 22, 2019. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Free Times

Ellen said Experience Columbia is working on the bid for another tournament between 2023 and 2026 to be submitted in February. He said the city should know by next fall whether it will get to host again during that time period.

"I think we have an excellent shot at getting a return," he said, based on the feedback his organization received from fans and coaches.

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Ellen said there are a number of obstacles the city will likely have to overcome in order to get the event back, among those are increasing the number of full-service hotels. Typically, each visiting team is housed in a separate hotel, but a few had to double up while they were here.

"I don’t know if the NCAA will give us a pass in the future," Ellen said.

But he's confident it won't be an issue based on a number of new hotel developments being considered. He said, short of an economic downturn, he doesn't see anything getting in the way of those hoteliers entering the market.

John A. Carlos II

The first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia on March 22, 2019. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Free Times

Beyond the tournament, the number of visitors coming to Columbia continues to rise in general, setting another year of records, Ellen said. There were 200,000 more visitors to the capital city in 2018 than in 2016, according to the organization's most recent biennial study.

The 14.8 million visitors to the city contributed $2.3 billion in direct economic impact, Ellen said, bringing in $123 million in state and local taxes. Of that, $426 million was spent on food and beverages and $256 million on hotels. Of total visitorship, about 5.5 million people stay overnight.

“We have become a destination that we weren’t 10 years ago,” Ellen said.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.