COLUMBIA — South Carolina's capital city is ready to turn its big basketball moment into a statement.

With more than 25,000 people expected, Columbia has worked with restaurants and attractions to hold concerts, fan fests and parties to celebrate the city hosting the NCAA men's basketball tournament for the first time since 1970.

Riverbanks Zoo will place basketballs with kangaroos, seals and ostriches. The movie "Hoosiers" will be shown on the Riverwalk. And a music fest will take over Main Street.

"After the Super Bowl, March Madness is second best way to introduce people to your community," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. "It's an opportunity to show we are a 21st century city where people want to invest, work and play."

The long weekend of first- and second-round games on Friday and Sunday also could help recruit students — as well as potential athletes — to University of South Carolina, the state's flagship college.

"This will resonate with a lot of the kids," said Dennis Powell, a former USC basketball player who heads the Columbia Tip-Off Club. "It can only help."

In a town where sports and politics mix, Columbia will host two of the hottest stars in each on Friday.

Beto O'Rourke, the Kennedy-esque former Texas congressman running for president, comes to the University of South Carolina campus hours before Zion Williamson, the freshman star from Duke University, takes the court in a tournament opener at Colonial Life Arena.

Columbia might see more fans for an University of South Carolina football game or attract more visitors for the eclipse last year, but the NCAA tournament draws millions of fans watching on television. And Columbia is the only city hosting two No. 1 tournament seeds — Virginia and Duke.

"This has more eyes on us than most events we do," said Sid Kenyon, Colonial Life Arena's general manager.

The return

South Carolina was in the spotlight for other reasons over a decade when the NCAA banned pre-selected tournaments in the state over the Confederate flag flying on the Statehouse grounds. (South Carolina could host NCAA championship games if teams received them on merit, like the USC women's basketball team.)

That kept South Carolina from bidding for the lucrative men's basketball tournament until the flag was removed in 2015 in the wake of the Charleston church shooting. The NCAA ban along with a NAACP boycott stung the city.

"I'm not sure we'll be able to quantify what we lost out on with capital investment and tourism and talent because people thought we were intolerant when it was our Legislature that did not have moral courage to act," Benjamin said.

"I'd be in meetings with (potential business prospects) and we'd check all their boxes, but then the flag came up."

John A. Carlos II

Banners on Main Street mark March Madness events in Columbia. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

South Carolina's first post-ban men's basketball tournament games came in 2017 in Greenville where USC started its Final Four run.

Ironically, Greenville got the first- and second-round games when the NCAA pulled out of Greensboro, N.C., over the state's law limiting the rights of transgender people. Greenville will host games again in 2022.

The challenge 

Columbia can bid for more tournament games starting in 2023, but getting the NCAA to come back a third time is not guaranteed.

Columbia does not have enough hotels that meet the NCAA qualifications. In addition to a certain number of rooms, teams each need three large meeting rooms and hotels must have on-site food service.

The NCAA let Columbia slide this time and could do so again under the right circumstances, said Scott Powers, who recruits sports events for Experience Columbia SC, the city's tourism arm.  

"I think we need to show them what we do have works perfectly," Powers said. "We need to show them that the hotels we do have are fantastic and that it's easy to move around the city."

With two No. 1 seeds, an expected crush of school officials and media members coming to Columbia led tourism officials to ask some hotels to hold additional rooms at NCAA rates lower than what hotels could charge to accommodate the overflow crowd, Powers said.

The crush from the tournament is happening as hundreds of families arrive in town for a regular cycle of graduation ceremonies at the Army's Fort Jackson training base. The cooperation and coordination among hotels could boost chances to win a future tournament bid, Powers said.

"Business does not shut down with March Madness," he said. "The NCAA will see that we're wanting to do the right thing and do it the right way."

City leaders held 3,000 rooms for the teams, university and NCAA officials and the media. Fans are expected to take another 2,000 rooms, Powers said.

Since so many first-time visitors are expected, Columbia will have volunteers wearing turquoise shirts with "Ask Me" on the front at hotels and on downtown streets to direct fans around town.

"I think we're ready," Powers said.

The crowds

Doing well also could help Columbia land other events.

They could include large amateur and youth track and field events as well as other NCAA tournaments, including beach volleyball, golf and tennis, Powers said.

The NCAA's Division II women's golf championship is scheduled for Woodcreek Farms in nearby Elgin.

Columbia is used to having big crowds this time of year.

The NCAA tournament is coming two weeks before another busy time in Columbia when hotels and restaurants are filled with fans attending The Masters golf tournament, a little more than an hour west in Augusta, Ga.   

Motor Supply Co. Bistro, a popular downtown restaurant, usually names cocktails with golf themes during The Masters week.

But the restaurant five blocks from the arena has named cocktails after city attractions this week to give visitors insight to the city.

"We will have people flowing in and out all game day," Motor Supply owner Eddie Wales said. "There's definitely a buzz here."

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.