Derek Redd: Charleston’s grip on MEC basketball tournament challenged

Gazette-Mail file photo
Wheeling Jesuit coach Debbie Buff cuts down the game net after winning the 2016 MEC women’s basketball tournament championship.

Could a staple of Charleston sports for nearly six decades actually pull up stakes and move west?

It could happen.

Two cities have placed a bid to host the Mountain East Conference men’s and women’s basketball championships — Charleston and Huntington. So, in 2018, that tournament will either remain at the Charleston Civic Center — and in a city that has hosted this region’s small colleges basketball tournament since the heyday of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference — or it will head to the Cam Henderson Center on the campus of Marshall University.

(MEC commissioner Reid Amos said this week that other cities could file proposals, but the clock is ticking. Unless another city sneaks in with a jaw-dropping bid, this should be a two-horse race.)

And make no mistake, the move is a distinct possibility. The City of Huntington and the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau wouldn’t have spent all those hours crafting and refining their proposal just to kick the tires. They’re in it to win it.

And if Huntington does win that two-year deal with the option for hosting a third, Charleston must look itself in the mirror.

That’s not to say the City of Charleston didn’t mobilize this past year in improving the MEC tournament experience. Right before the 2017 tournament, beat writer Michael Carvelli and I sat down with Rod Blackstone, the senior assistant to Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, and Tim Brady, vice president of sales and marketing for the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, and listened as they laid out their plan. And it was a really good plan.

They appointed hosts for each team to make sure those teams could navigate Charleston without issue. There were moves to defray costs for both the MEC and each qualifying team to make it a more affordable experience. Local restaurants chipped in to provide meeting places for semifinalist and finalist teams. When you walked through the Charleston Town Center, banners welcomed MEC teams and fans and promoted “Basketball Month in Charleston.”

Charleston did its part to enhance the experience around the Civic Center. It’s just that, when you walked through the Civic Center doors, there still were issues.

I only saw a couple of them with my own eyes. When I arrived at the Civic Center before tipoff of the tournament’s first game, MEC banners still were being hung around the arena floor. What image does that send to basketball fans as people are scrambling to get everything in place minutes before the first game? I had been told there were other problems away from public view.

Those logistical issues, both out in the open and behind the scenes, came, in part, because of the quick turnaround between the Feb. 28 Harlem Globetrotters game and the March 1 start of the MEC tournament. Blackstone said this week that situation was addressed directly in Charleston’s proposal for future tournaments.

And if Charleston has an advantage in this, it’s that the city can improve and evolve through experience. It can look at past mistakes and come up with concrete plans to ensure they don’t happen again. Yet there will come a point where the MEC — and any group that uses the Civic Center for that matter — will expect the mistakes to be kept to a minimum.

While Huntington hasn’t hosted an MEC tournament, it does host the state wrestling tournament. Marshall is no stranger to hosting events. It welcomed the Conference USA men’s soccer tournament this season and sees thousands come to campus for football and basketball events. Marshall also is no stranger to hosting MEC events. The Mountain East men’s and women’s tennis championships were held on Marshall’s campus this season.

There have been questions as to whether MEC fans would migrate to Huntington along with the tournament. And while the case could be made that the conference doesn’t have a footprint in Cabell County — as it does in the Kanawha Valley with the University of Charleston and West Virginia State — one could argue that moving to Huntington could expand the conference’s footprint.

And, for that matter, the gate for the 2016 MEC tournament in Charleston fell below the threshold that allowed the conference to exit its contract with the Civic Center early. The conference might be tempted to see if a change of venue leads to better attendance.

In the end, Amos and the MEC will choose the proposal that best benefits the conference. Amos has said numerous times that competition is healthy, both among his member schools and among potential host cities. And he’s right. Sometimes complacency can kick in when an event has made its home in the same place decade after decade. Competition can be the kick in the pants necessary to get everyone on the right track.

If the MEC basketball tournament does head to Huntington, it’s not guaranteed to stay there for decades to come. But it would be an important, and sobering, lesson to Charleston that tradition isn’t the only component to snaring tournaments like MEC basketball.

And if the MEC does choose to remain at the Civic Center — and the estimated $2 million in economic impact is a great reason to fight like heck to keep it — a lesson still could be learned: Competition is always out there. Either stay at the top of your game, or risk disappointment.

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or derek.redd@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.

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