If it was up to College of Charleston athletic director Matt Roberts, the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament would be held in the Lowcountry every year.
After a three-year run at the North Charleston Coliseum that saw the Cougars advance to the championship game in 2017 and 2018, the tournament is moving to Washington, D.C., for three years. Roberts is optimistic that Charleston will be in the mix when the bidding process begins in a couple of years.
A year ago, the Cougars rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Northeastern in the CAA tournament championship game before nearly 8,000 fans. In 2017, the final between UNC Wilmington and Charleston drew almost 6,500 fans.
“Having the tournament at the North Charleston Coliseum was almost transformational for our basketball program,” Roberts said. “The support we had the first two years when we made the championship game was incredible. I don’t think we win the championship last year if that game is not in Charleston.”
The momentum from the two tournament final appearances carried over to this season as the Cougars led the CAA in attendance at TD Arena, averaging 4,202 per game. It was the second-highest attendance figure in program history and the highest revenue for ticket sales, Roberts said.
“The support and success we had in the North Charleston Coliseum translated into attendance at TD Arena,” Roberts said. “I believe that started with what happened in the tournament. It was a phenomenal three years for us and helped push our program forward.”
Roberts is already thinking ahead to 2020, when the College of Charleston can make its pitch to bring the tournament back to the Lowcountry.
“I fully expect us to put an aggressive bid together whether it’s at the North Charleston Coliseum or TD Arena,” Roberts said. “We want to try to get it back here.”
CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio wouldn’t rule out a return to Lowcountry in the future.
“We’ve had a tremendous experience here in Charleston,” D’Antonio said. “We can’t say enough good things about Charleston. In this profession, you never say never. You don't say, absolutely yes, either.
"You never want to set those absolutes. When the bidding process comes up again, will Charleston be considered? Absolutely."
Coaches from around the league have griped that the Cougars have had an unfair homecourt advantage during the last three years in North Charleston.
“The tournaments are supposed to be on neutral sites, but there was nothing neutral about the atmosphere, it was a home game for Charleston,” said Northeastern coach Bill Coen after last year’s loss in the final.
For a league that stretches almost 1,000 miles from Boston to Charleston, the move to the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., made sense. There's no doubt the venue is more centrally located for all the schools. Four of the CAA’s 10-member schools are located within 150 miles of the nation’s capital and six are within 300 miles. Nearly 400,000 alumni from CAA institutions reside within 100 miles of the city.
The venue, however, is much smaller than the North Charleston Coliseum, which seats 10,170. But D’Antonio said a packed 5,000-seat arena could make for better visuals on television.
“Having the tournament in Washington, which is centrally located within the footprint of the conference, is one advantage,” D’Antonio said. “It’s a basketball-centric facility.
"The size was attractive. There are three major airports in the area and a (subway) stop right there at the venue. You’d like to think it’ll make it that much easier for people to get in and out.”
The attendance for the tournament was higher in Charleston during its three-year run than in the previous three years at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore (2014-17). When the tournament was in Baltimore, the average attendance was 18,005. The three tournaments in the Lowcountry drew an average of 19,697.
“Would we like to sell out every game, of course, but that’s not the ultimate determining factor in picking a venue,” D’Antonio said. “Our goal is to have the best student-athlete and fan experience we can have. We can’t control the matchups during the tournament or times teams will play. But we can control the experience. We’re trying to provide our fans, student-athletes and institutions with a top-notch basketball experience.”
To cut down on travel expenses, smaller conferences like the Big South hold their tournament games on campus sites. D’Antonio said the league has no plans to move in that direction.
“Most of the student-athletes in our conference are not going to have the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, so this is their postseason experience," D’Antonio said. "In my mind having that postseason tournament at a neutral venue is really important.”