Three years ago, Greenville saw an opportunity — but it had to hustle if it was to end its 15-year walk in the March Madness wilderness.
North Carolina was arguing over bathrooms.
Thus, the governing body of college athletics was looking for new host sites for the first and second rounds of its men’s basketball tournament, one of the nation’s brightest sports stages and a billion-dollar moneymaker.
Suddenly, Greenville was on the clock. And with possibly as much to lose as to gain.
Leaders had been preparing a long-term bid to host a tournament at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena ever since the National Collegiate Athletics Association ended its boycott of the state upon the legislature’s removal of the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in 2015.
This was an opportunity to show, not tell. The bid was put together within mere days.
The rest is history.
This week, Greenville was awarded early rounds for both the 2026 men’s tournament and the 2023 women’s. The city already is set to host the men in 2022 and, if not for the coronavirus, would have hosted the women this past spring.
The audition, it turns out, meant everything.
“We over-delivered in 2017, in a very short amount of time,” Beth Paul, the arena’s general manager, told The Post and Courier this week. “We will reap the benefits of putting together that bid within a matter of days for years to come. We knew the long-term impact was there. We had no choice but to be successful.”
The city fared better than its neighbor 90 minutes down Interstate 26.
Columbia was successful in hosting the first and second rounds of the men’s tournament in 2019 but bricked on its bid for future tournaments, which came as a shock to those involved.
“We are extremely disappointed,” Scott Powers, executive director of Experience Columbia SC Sports, told The Post and Courier. “We worked hard on our bid, we thought we put our best foot forward, and I don’t know why.”
What was lost?
In Greenville, the city estimates the 2022 men’s tournament will have a $5.3 million economic impact.
For perspective, before the last-second score in 2017, Greenville last hosted the men’s tournament in 2002.
Two years earlier, the legislature had compromised on taking the Confederate battle flag off the Statehouse dome by planting it in a prominent spot right on Gervais Street.
The NCAA refused to allow any future awards for events at predetermined sites after they agreed to honor the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s boycott.
The 2002 event, which had already been approved, received high praise from fans, players and coaches, like Duke University’s coach Mike Krzysewski.
But it wouldn’t matter.
Not until the flag was removed entirely in June 2015 — weeks after a white supremacist proclaiming a race war killed nine black parishioners in Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel church.