Longtime sport and entertainment management professor Tom Regan has studied countless sporting events during nearly 30 years at the University of South Carolina, but he’s never analyzed the economic impact of one quite like this.
Columbia is playing host to a men’s NCAA regional basketball tournament this weekend for the first time since 1970, and while Regan expects full hotels and a bustling social scene surrounding games Friday and Sunday at Colonial Life Arena, specific expectations are difficult to quantify.
“We haven’t had that conversation for 49 years,” Regan said.
That’s largely because Columbia, like all S.C. cities, was ineligible for such a discussion for nearly 15 years. Beginning in 2001, the NCAA refused to allow predetermined championship events to be held in the state while the Confederate flag flew above the Statehouse. With the passage of legislation in July 2015 that led to the flag’s removal, the boycott ended. Two years later, Columbia was awarded a 2019 men’s basketball tournament regional.
Greenville played host to regional competition in 2017, the same year the South Carolina women's basketball team served as host for an NCAA regional.
On Friday, hoops fans in the Midlands and beyond can watch a pair of No. 1 seeds take the court in the first round of the annual sporting frenzy known as March Madness. Virginia will play Gardner-Webb in the second of two afternoon games, while top national seed Duke and freshman sensation Zion Williamson take on a play-in game winner in the first of two evening contests.
Fans can get a first — and free — glimpse of Williamson during the Blue Devils’ open practice on Thursday from 3:25 p.m. to 4:05 p.m.
Williamson, the nation’s most-buzzed about recruit last year out of Spartanburg Day School, tore up the college court until injuring his knee during Duke’s game against North Carolina on Feb. 20. In his return in the ACC tournament, all Williamson did was average 27 points and 10 rebounds in three games to claim both conference player of the year and most outstanding tournament player honors.
“He’s one of the best players in college basketball, and being from Spartanburg, I think there’s going to be significant interest in how he’s doing,” Regan said. “That tie right there alone is going to be very beneficial, because I think basketball fans who understand the game are definitely going to come and watch him play.”
Eight seed Ole Miss tips off Friday’s games at Colonial Life Arena against No. 9 Oklahoma at 12:40 p.m. No. 1 seed Virginia, which last year became the first 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a 16th seed, takes on No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb at 3 p.m.
Duke’s game against the winner of Wednesday night’s play-in contest between N.C. Central and North Dakota State tips at 7:10 p.m., followed by No. 8 VCU vs No. 9 UCF.
As of Tuesday afternoon, plenty of tickets remained available on StubHub for the afternoon session, beginning at $19. The evening games, which require separate tickets, also had plenty of seats left, but seeing Zion in prime time will cost at least $90.
That price differential doesn’t surprise Stephen Shapiro, a USC sport and entertainment professor who has done extensive research on ticket sales and the secondary market, which includes services such as StubHub and SeatGeek.
While attendance at events such as the NCAA tournament is generally driven by support for specific teams, “in this case — probably a rare case in college basketball — it’s individual player-specific with Zion Williamson,” Shapiro said. “Duke and Zion Williamson being here has really inflated the prices.
“I would think it’s a combination of Duke being here, which I think the prices would be high wherever it is, and the fact that we haven’t hosted a tournament here in so long. I think there’s a lot of appetite for going, versus if it’s in Charlotte and it’s there every other year.”
Regan will be on site at Friday’s first-round and Sunday’s second-round games, distributing surveys to fans as they tailgate or enjoy a halftime hotdog. He hopes to survey at least 1,000 people about where they’re staying, what they’re eating, what they’re buying and what they think of Columbia.
He’ll then feed information from the surveys, which he says take between two and five minutes to complete, into statistical software and begin extrapolating data that will provide some meat to early estimates that project some 25,000 fans and an economic impact of up to $9 million.
“I think the spending is going to be like an SEC football weekend,” Regan said. “The hotels during football games are full. Football’s going to bring in 80,000 people, and let’s just say 20,000 are visitors. That’s about the same size as you’re going to get here. … You’re also going to have a lot of people that come to town to be around the event that will be in the bars and other areas to view the game, but they won’t have tickets.”
Chris Stone, president of VisitGreenvilleSC, told the Greenville News that the 2017 men’s regional generated an estimated $3.6 million impact for that Upstate city, with more than 14,000 visitors with tickets flocking to town.
Regan also hopes the economic impact numbers will bolster Columbia’s chances of playing host to another NCAA regional, which it can do again in 2023. And he said the city’s turn in the spotlight could have longer-term ramifications.
“Many (visiting fans) are season ticket holders, and these season ticket holders are the businesspeople, usually, in those communities,” Regan said. “When they see Columbia, and if they have a great perception and they see that this is a city that’s doing a lot of things right, they might have business-to-business relationships where they bring their companies into Columbia in order to do some business.”