MEAC Tournament Looks A Lot Like CIAA’s

By David Squires
Updated: March 14, 2005

RICHMOND, Va. — The MEAC closed out its basketball tournament week on two high notes on Saturday – one on the court and one off.

Hampton and Delaware State went down to the wire in the afternoon before the Hornets won 55-53 on a late tip-in at the Richmond Coliseum.

Then Saturday night, the legendary rhythm and blues artists Earth, Wind and Fire closed out the six-day event with an old school concert at the Convention Center.

Now Delaware State moves on to represent the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in the Big Dance – the NCAA tournament. Although getting in the nationally televised tournament is a big deal, many folks around the MEAC are more eager about another big dance – the CIAA’s wildly popular basketball tournament week that took place a week ago.

For some MEAC faithful, a story Tuesday on the front page of the Washington Post’s sports section featuring the CIAA’s 60th anniversary event brought on a serious case of tournament envy.

The problem is that MEAC basketball tournament week, which expected to draw some 40,000 in Richmond, is not yet in the same level with the CIAA, which drew more than 110,000 a week ago in Raleigh, N.C.

The MEAC has a $4.5 million economic impact on the Richmond area, while the CIAA’s economic impact on Raleigh is estimated at $12 million.

This might seem strange given that CIAA schools are mostly smaller NCAA Division II programs and MEAC schools are larger D-Is. But the CIAA has been around since 1912, while the MEAC began competing in 1971.

Schools such as Hampton (1995) and Norfolk State (1997) left the CIAA in recent years to “move up” to the MEAC. Winston-Salem State and N.C. Central will be the next two CIAA schools to migrate to the MEAC in the next couple of years.

The schools believe they can eventually make more money in Division I-AA. With the larger athletic budget requirements, this is far from a given.

The MEAC also believes it can create its own version of the CIAA tournament. MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas, formerly the athletic director at Hampton University, is already on the case.

“I hope the CIAA continues to succeed,” Thomas said. “We’re not there yet. But there is no doubt in my mind, we’re going to get there.”

That’s why Earth, Wind and Fire was brought in.

That’s why the MEAC tournament has added a Hall of Fame breakfast, a talent show, cheering competition, jazz session and other activities to its lineup.

That’s why the popular Sky Show, hosted by nationally syndicated disc jockey Tom Joyner, was broadcast live from Richmond on Friday morning.

If it looks like the CIAA and quacks like the CIAA, it must be the … MEAC.

“It has to be more than about basketball,” Thomas said. “It’s a reunion. It’s a fashion show. It’s networking and then some. And you have to find a way to connect on all levels.”

Expect an even bigger – even more CIAA-like – shindig next year when the MEAC tournament is expected to leave Richmond. Four cities, including Richmond, submitted bids, but many believe Raleigh is the front-runner.

That’s interesting given that the CIAA tournament is moving next year from Raleigh to Charlotte, N.C., to be closer to expansion targets in Georgia and South Carolina.

But while conceding the basketball tournament war to the CIAA for now, Thomas says the MEAC is superior in other areas.

The MEAC, he points out, has a more lucrative television contract with various ESPN networks, which also includes eight football games. The CIAA deal announced with ESPN did not include football.

MEAC schools also participate in far more lucrative and prestigious football games: The Florida Classic, Atlanta Football Classic, New York Urban League Classic and Circle City Classic either exclusively or regularly include MEAC schools. The attendance at these games ranges from 60,000 to 70,000-plus.

Plus, Thomas points out that the MEAC and SWAC are negotiating to bring back a national black college championship game. A similar game died out a few years ago because of limited sponsorship and other issues.

“I believe it can work, if it’s done right,” Thomas said.

“So you have to understand,” he concluded, “at the MEAC, we have a whole lot more to worry about, than just a basketball tournament.”