Barbara Smith decided it was time. After years of attending the CIAA Basketball Tournament in Charlotte, the North Carolina native made the five-hour drive on Sunday from Durham to Baltimore.

“It gets in your blood, and you can’t get it out,” Smith said the following day in her seat at CFG Bank Arena for the tournament’s opening night. As a DJ warmed up the crowd with songs by Ice Spice and Pop Smoke, Smith showed off her heather gray 25th anniversary CIAA Tournament sweatshirt as the women’s teams of Bowie State and Winston-Salem State ran up and down the court.

But while Smith was quick to compliment the venue’s recent $250 million renovations, she also had a request: “I wish they would bring it back down south.”

Smith’s sentiment is indicative of the ongoing battle facing city and tournament organizers as the storied weeklong event — which attracts tens of thousands of fans to the region — enters its third in-person year here. After building a close association with North Carolina’s Queen City over more than a decade, Baltimore and the CIAA are working to convince more fans like Smith to make the trip to the mid-Atlantic over the next few years. (Organizers announced last year that Baltimore would remain home to the tournament through 2026.)

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The financial returns for the event’s most recent editions in Baltimore, in 2022 and 2023, have been positive, said Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, one of the tournament’s organizers. The 2022 iteration generated a total economic impact of $19.6 million, while last year’s event saw that figure increase to $29.6 million, he said. Year-over-year attendance saw a slight bump as well, from 36,390 tournament attendees over five days in 2022 to about 38,450 in 2023.

Those numbers, however, fell short of Charlotte’s recent stats (the 2019 tournament in North Carolina generated $43.7 million) — a reflection of the gap organizers are striving to close in Baltimore. Though Hutchinson said there’s still “so much room to grow” in terms of ticket sales and hotel occupancies, he’s encouraged by the early relationship between Baltimore and the conference, and what it could mean down the road.

“As long as we can continue to sell tickets, create the excitement of the tournament and the [university] presidents are pleased with it, this could potentially be a longer-term home for the CIAA,” Hutchinson said.

Mayor Brandon Scott and other local leaders have talked about hosting CIAA festivities with much pride, given the tournament’s storied history. In June, Gov. Wes Moore described the event as “our opportunity to showcase what our state has to offer.”

The Charlotte-based Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association was founded in 1912 and is both the country’s first and oldest Black athletic conference, with member schools as far north as Oxford, Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University down to Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Bowie State is the lone CIAA member from Maryland.

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Over time, the multiday event became synonymous with competitive Division II basketball and their spirited fan bases, along with star-studded performances by chart-topping rappers and alumni step shows. It has become an all-encompassing celebration of HBCU culture at large.

Not all relationships last forever, though, as evidenced by some CIAA visitors’ grumblings of price gouging by Charlotte hotels and restaurants in recent years. Charlotte’s loss quickly became Baltimore’s gain when the tournament relocated here in 2022. (The 2021 version, set to take place in Baltimore, was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

So far, Baltimore has been an “amazing” partner and host, said CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams from Charlotte during a phone interview last week. McWilliams said she couldn’t wait to see the “Welcome CIAA” signage on the new digital billboards downtown. She’s heard from North Carolinians like Smith, who hope the event will return to the state, where seven of the 13 CIAA schools call home, but McWilliams is focused on growing the tournament in Baltimore.

“There are folks who still believe we need to be here [in Charlotte], but what I’ve said is those are normally the people who never bought tickets,” McWilliams said. “At the end of the day, we’re in a city that is connected holistically with our drive to impact community.”

Far more than just the action on the hardwood, the CIAA Tournament is a network of events that aim to connect, educate and entertain hoops fans and alumni alike — from Thursday’s sold-out alumni party at Rams Head Live featuring DJ Skillz and DJ Shakim to the free, two-day FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center that includes Greek step shows and a battle of the bands.

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The week will also feature familiar events like a career expo and an education day geared toward students interested in college. While the CIAA’s goal is to offer helpful programs and entertainment throughout the week, McWilliams said she hopes attendees don’t lose focus of the tournament itself.

“A lot of people hear CIAA and think it’s this event,” she said, “and they don’t remember that the core of why we’re there is basketball.”

Hutchinson hopes an expanded on-court product will lead to more visitors, and dollars, coming into the city, as this year’s tournament is the first since the CIAA welcomed West Virginia’s Bluefield State to the conference in July. As a result, the tournament — with its games broadcast on ESPN+, along with the finals on ESPNU — has expanded from 22 games to 24.

It’s all part of spreading the word that CIAA weekend now belongs to Baltimore, not Charlotte. McWilliams said she anticipated it would take some time, particularly coming out of a pandemic, for that point to resonate, especially with so many CIAA students and alumni based in the North Carolina region.

Others, like Regina Russell, have gotten the message loud and clear. The Catonsville resident didn’t attend an HBCU, nor had she ever been to CIAA weekend, but that didn’t stop her from buying tickets and parking for each day of this year’s tournament. She’s also looking forward to checking out restaurants featured in the weekend’s Black-owned restaurant tour and showing out-of-town visitors the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.

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Russell said she feels a responsibility to support the CIAA Tournament while it’s in Baltimore.

“We have to support our own,” Russell said at Monday’s game. “In our communities, we spend so much of our money on other things. Why not invest it back into our communities? That’s why I’m here.”

But the CIAA’s presence has reminded Russell, an Annapolis native, of everything Baltimore has to offer as well.

“For people who live in this area, it reminds us that these things are still here because you know, we get caught up in our day-to-day,” she said. “We don’t come downtown, so it’s a great opportunity, and I’m excited and looking forward to enjoying the entire week.”

Wesley Case is a Baltimore-based writer covering arts and entertainment.

Wesley Case writes The Scan, The Baltimore Banner’s weekday morning newsletter.

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