TMR Q&A: Jacqie McWilliams on CIAA cultivating community, culture and engagement to grow their tournament 75X in 75 years

Insights on how a DII HBCU conference outshines the “power six” from CIAA Commissioner, Jacqie McWilliams

The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) celebrates its 75th Basketball Tournament at Bojangles’ Coliseum and Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., from Feb 24-29, 2020.

Founded in 1912, the CIAA consists of 12 NCAA Division II schools (plus a 13th associate member for football and bowling) and holds the distinction of being the oldest HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) athletic conference.

Tournament week is built around 22 do-or-die basketball games with students, alumni and fans from near and far treated to educational programming, community engagement, a free two-day Toyota Fan Fest, Nationwide Block Party, Lowe’s Super Saturday, step shows, concerts and more. It’s also one of few basketball tournaments in the nation that features men’s and women’s competitions in the same facility, during the same week. Appropriately enough, it all falls during Black History Month.

Between all the hoops in one place and all the community engagement and events, event week has taken on a life of its own as it has grown to more than 150,000 visitors — the third largest college conference event across all NCAA divisions.

That’s nice growth — more than 75X — from the 2,000 ticket sell-out at the CIAA’s inaugural event in 1946.

Corporate sponsorship support usually reserved for “big time” Division I programs comes from the aforementioned brands — the CIAA is the only DII conference that is part of Lowe’s Senior Class Award as well as the just announced Hercules Tire partnership — along with Coca-Cola, Food Lion, McDonald’s and more.

It is not out of line to call the event a cultural touchstone, and media have noticed. In addition to all games streamed live on the CIAA’s CIAASN app, ESPN Charlotte will carry all games for the first time this year. The new Black News Channel is on site all week, Source Magazine has struck a deal as an event partner and USA Today featured the event in both their Black History Month special section and in the main paper this week.

This is the tournament’s 15th consecutive year in Charlotte, and the last before a move to Baltimore. Baltimore officials put together a strong financial package to lure the event — and its $40+ million annual economic impact — from the Queen City to the Charm City for the 2021-23 editions.

TMR caught up with CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams this week to check in on how she and the CIAA staff act as stewards of this fan engagement

As the CIAA’s third full-time Commissioner, McWilliams is the first African-American female ever to not only hold the title for the CIAA but the first across all NCAA Divisions. Before taking the helm at the CIAA in Sep 2012, McWilliams worked at the NCAA for nine years, including time as Director of both the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament (2006-09) and the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament (2007-12). A former student-athlete at Hampton University, she was a member of the 1988 NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Championship team and the 1987 and 1990 CIAA Volleyball Championship teams. 

Click here to view the CIAA profile in the SportsSponsor FactBook™.

Portions have been edited for clarity.

Team Marketing Report: How did the CIAA tournament get to be such a “happening”? What did the early tournaments look like – did it start as just basketball, or have there been ancillary events and activities from Day 1?


Jacqie McWilliams: The CIAA started in 1946 with $500 and five men who wanted to create a tournament because they didn’t have access to play in the NCAA or the NAIA. Even then, it wasn’t just about basketball. The Tournament has always been a gathering. Reports from back then say that 3,000 people crowded in to a 2,000-seat arena. African-Americans still lived in a segregated south so our teams had to find other African-American businesses and hotels where they could stay and eat. Because of that, at our core, we’ve always been about community and family.

The games have always been about a celebration that includes not just sports but food and social gatherings. It has grown over the years but at its heart it’s been basketball, reunions and celebrating Black culture.

TMR: How did the conference determine what to add?

Microsoft was among the brands on hand engaging with thousands of students at CIAA Middle School Day on Feb 25, 2020 CIAA

JM: From my earliest memory, there were cheer competitions and a Super Saturday event at the CIAA. When I joined the CIAA as Commissioner, the conference had recently moved to Charlotte, so it was the perfect time to evaluate, restructure and create events that were beneficial to the CIAA, the community and to the City of Charlotte.

We added more opportunities for community engagement, created a free Fan Fest and Super Saturday, plus evolved programs including Education Day, which today focuses on STEM and is attended by over 3,000 middle school students, Career Day for high school students, where they literally can apply to HBCU colleges and be accepted on the spot, the Business Symposium and the Women’s Empowerment Luncheon.

TMR: What are some of the marketing essentials the CIAA has established over the years? What are the must haves for advertising, promotion, engagement?

JM: First, great partners like Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment and Liquid Soul have been essential as we build alliances, sponsorship opportunities and increase our visibility and the overall CIAA footprint. Partnerships are critical to our success and have allowed us to stretch our resources through collaboration and creating a “win-win” for all involved.

TMR: Can the success of the CIAA tourney be replicated elsewhere?

JM: Yes. The CIAA is an organic event that can have a footprint anywhere – if there is community support and citywide engagement. Our model can be adapted to fit into any community. For example, while Education Day may be executed differently in another market, the impact of working with our school systems and students remain the same. This year alone, we will touch more than 6,000 students, exposing them to our “CIAA For Life” philosophy and hopefully creating fans of our schools and our sports teams.

TMR: What do you tell your commissioner peers to avoid?

JM: Avoid operating in silos and lead with transparency. You can’t do this event by operating in silos — everyone has to be a part of the puzzle. It’s not about ego, it’s about the work we do for the students, alumni and for our member institutions.

TMR: On the other hand, what do you tell them they can’t live without?

JM: That’s easy — they can’t live without their Board and a committed team! You have to have a solid team who believe in the mission and the vision.

TMR: What does it mean to the CIAA to be the #3 attended college tourney across ALL of NCAA hoops? Is that scary?

JM: That is not top of mind for us. We use the attendance numbers as a marketing tool, but our ultimate priority is to run a great event, and manage it in a way to get our fans, alumni and the community engaged. What’s important to us at the end of the day? Meeting our goals and reaching our mission.

TMR: How are sponsors integrated? How much of events/activation has come from the CIAA creating something to sell to a sponsor vs. how much has been driven by sponsors themselves? What are examples of the best sponsors and their activations around the tourney?

CIAA Tourney sponsors such as Coke activate both in game and at various ancillary eventsCIAA

JM: Our sponsorship activations are a collaborative effort, agreed upon and developed based on our available assets.  What is unique about the CIAA is that our sponsors work together — for example, Food Lion, Nationwide and Coke — all collaborate to create exclusive experiences that are beneficial to our student-athletes and to the success of the conference. There are also several core conference events that we handle with traditional opportunities for our partners and sponsors to participate. Those events include the Hall of Fame, Scholarships, Career Day, High School and Middle School Education Days and Fan Fest, among others.

TMR: With all that great stuff going on in addition to the games, is there any concern there’s not enough focus on the games themselves?

JM: It depends on your perspective. We focus on the games – and the atmosphere at the competitions is so full of a special kind of energy that it’s clear that the game of basketball remains a driving force for us. Our PR and marketing efforts are all about the CIAA Basketball Tournament games.

However, it is true that a lot of our fans are not CIAA alumni. They have become fans of the brand because our community events engage people no matter what their affiliation is.

They come because they like the environment, on and off the court. We might engage with them first at the Step Show but then they are hooked and become fans of our teams and our brand.

TMR: How do you use this tournament to reach – and then convert – new fans to the CIAA fold?

The 2020 CIAA Minority Business & Leadership Symposium at the
Charlotte Convention Center featured a full house and lively discussion on Feb 27, 2020CIAA

JM: It’s about community. Our core is the basketball game, but our recipe for success is our focus on the surrounding community.

We create fan experiences that connect and impact the community, drive ticket sales, hotel stays and raise money.

We put “butts in seats” by converting fans through a great CIAA experience. Since we are a family-friendly conference we are multi-generational and inclusive. Our fans are truly “CIAA for Life.”

TMR: How much has the event budget grown over the years? 

JM: The CIAA started with an initial investment of $500 in 1946 so we’ve definitely grown since then!  We operate with a budget based on our membership fees, and our charge is to use those dollars to sustain the conference and create great experiences for our student-athletes. The priority is a great basketball tournament and championship experience.

Our ultimate goal is to save money to distribute to our member institutions to help fund scholarships and student development. To meet that goal, we are constantly identifying new revenue streams beyond the member institution and NCAA budgets.

I prefer to look at the economic impact we have on the community rather than talk about what we spend or how much it costs to stage this extravaganza. According to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA), the 2019 CIAA Basketball Tournament produced an estimated economic impact of $43.7 million. During its time in Charlotte, the CIAA Tournament has generated an estimated $600 million in total economic impact, including $370 million in direct visitor spending.

Additionally, and equally as important, by the end of the 15-year tournament run, the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority will have provided a total of $16.8 million to support student scholarships at CIAA member institutions.

TMR: What are the best elements fans do not want to miss at this year?

JM: The crowning of the champions, you can’t miss that! Come to the championship games on Saturday and fill the arena to cheer on our student-athletes. The success of this year’s tournament opens new doors and opportunities for the CIAA to continue to grow and be relevant to our fans, member institutions and our student athletes.

TMR: Anything you’ve wanted to add but haven’t been able to yet?

McWilliams, a two-sport athlete who won the 1988 DII Women’s National Championship while at Hampton University, brings passion for sport to all she doesCIAA

JM: We’ve done so much this year to continue to grow and build on the success of the CIAA Basketball Tournament. People are eager to see where we go and how we continue to develop. It gives us a chance to re-evaluate what this tournament means to our community.

Before, we were operating in fear, now we take calculated risks. We are taking time to brand ourselves as a conference with a base of diversity and inclusion.

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Chris brings deep sports business experience to his role as publisher of TMR. He first put his sales, experiential marketing, PR, sales and valuation skills to work in sporting goods retail in 1986. He has since worked for brands and agencies across all major league sports, plus golf, college athletics, marathons and motorsports. Chris is also the proud founder of Painless Networking.