What's the Value of Landing a Portion of the NCAA Mens Basketball Tourney in South Carolina?

Richard Breen

Friday, November 8th, 2019

The return of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to Columbia went over even bigger than expected, according to an economic impact study released Wednesday.

The March Madness weekend created an estimated $11.3 million direct impact on the Midlands, based on research conducted by Dr. Tom Regan, graduate director with the University of South Carolina College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. Pre-event estimates had anticipated a $9 million impact.

“We were entrusted with one of the most revered franchises in the entire country, and we passed with flying colors,” said Charles Bloom, executive associate athletics director at the University of South Carolina, the host school for the Columbia Regional.

First- and second-round games took place March 22 and 24 at Colonial Life Arena. Overall paid attendance of 47,977 was the highest of the eight sites nationwide that hosted those rounds.

“I think we outshined some of the other host cities,” said Bill Ellen, president and chief executive of Experience Columbia SC, the region’s convention and tourism bureau. “The return was well worth the effort.”

The Columbia Regional included Duke University, which featured star player and South Carolina native Zion Williamson, and the University of Virginia, the eventual national champion.

“We got very fortunate to draw some exciting teams,” Ellen said.

On top of ticket sales, a March 24 contest between Duke and the University of Central Florida drew nearly 13 million television viewers.

“If we had to pay for that, it would be very expensive,” Ellen said of the national exposure.

The NCAA hadn’t brought the men’s tournament to Columbia since 1970.

“People were introduced to Columbia, and they’ll come back,” said Columbia Mayor Pro Tem Tameika Isaac Devine.

The survey methodology specifically left out spending that would have occurred in the Midlands anyway.

“This wasn’t measuring people who decided to go to the game instead of the zoo or the museum,” Devine said.

In addition to supporters of competing teams, the event also drew basketball tourists attracted to the spectacle of March Madness.

“I think that was more significant than expected,” Ellen said.

A fan fest at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and more than 100 other community events welcomed attendees. Ellen said NCAA officials were “very complimentary” of the community involvement, while fans gave positive feedback regarding shuttle buses that brought attendees into downtown Columbia from off-site parking areas.

Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse, which sits between the arena and the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe, offered a beer with an NCAA-themed name.

“We definitely felt it here,” said Nancy Varner. The restaurant and bar “filled up in like five seconds” when games were completed. “It was good for our business, no question about that.”

An estimated $1.38 million in tax dollars came from out-of-town visitors, according to the study. Attendees represented 33 states as well as the District of Columbia and Canada.

The study did not report indirect impacts, such as when money made by locally owned businesses is re-spent at other local businesses.

“This money turns over so many times in our community,” Devine said.

Greenville hosted the 2017 first and second rounds, which featured Duke as well as USC. Officials there say there was a $3.6 million economic impact, with more than 3,600 hotel room nights being booked.

“We were also the first city to sell out tickets,” said Robin Wright, senior sales manager with VisitGreenvilleSC.

Both Wright and Ellen said their communities are in the process of preparing a bid to host the event again. The next round of NCAA site selection will cover the 2023-26 tournaments.

Devine said that information compiled in the effort to host the 2019 event will be available to help pitch other events. Regan said those events generate revenue while adding to the area’s quality of life.

“Columbia needs to use our hospitality and accommodation taxes to market, bid and attract similar events annually,” Regan said.