Big South hoops tourney finally finds a home on Strand

Welcome to the Grand Strand for the VisitMyrtleBeach.com Big South Conference Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments.

I’ve been waiting nearly two decades to say that phrase, and the Big South has been waiting even longer to land on the Grand Strand. From the time I moved to Myrtle Beach in 1995 there were rumors of bringing the hoops tournaments on the beach, but it always seemed to slip through the cracks like sand on the boardwalk.

Over the past 26 years, the Big South men’s tourney has bounced around to 10 cities and countless sites, including the woeful practice of home games for higher seeds that prevent the tournament from being the big season-ending spectacle it should be. Merging the men’s and women’s tourneys is a double bonus for the Big South.

From the early tournament sites in Savannah, Anderson and Rock Hill, nowhere seemed to stick. The brand-new North Charleston Coliseum showed promise in 1993-94 in terms of a quality host city and facility, but the 14,000-seat monster swallowed the small crowd. Spectators were even forced to sit on the same side opposite the ESPN cameras.

I arrived just in time for the four-year stretch in Lynchburg, Va., home of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and exactly zero Hooters restaurants because the ultra-conservative town found it in poor taste (I assume they were talking about the wings). Although we did have some hilarious poker parties in the hospitality room.

The Vines Center was a good fit, although the crowds were 90 percent fans of the Flames, but getting outsiders to take a winter break in Sinless City was a hard sell. So around and around it moved – Asheville, Roanoke, Radford and even CCU’s cracker-box Kimbel Arena. ESPN viewers thought they were watching a game in a high school JV gym.

The use of home sites for the tournament was a black eye for Big South basketball and was a real hinderance to landing a lucrative TV contract. There’s nothing like having all your teams slug it out for the NCAA Tournament bid under the same roof. Many have played host to the tourney over the years, but it never seemed to find a home.

All along the Grand Strand was atop everyone’s wish list. The Myrtle Beach Convention Center was the target destination but the community couldn’t deliver the title sponsor to land the tourney. There was a lot of tall talk around town about investing in sports tourism on the Strand but no one willing to write a fat check.

Enter the HTC Center and the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, which seized the opportunity to capitalize on the national air time the tournament will receive. In addition to bringing fans to the beach for the tourney, the chance to blast scenes of the beach to viewers suffering from the winter-time blues is sure to pay dividends.

The real winner is the Big South, which finally offers its fans a great place to visit and to watch the games. The 4,200-seat HTC Center is an ideal venue for the mid-major conference and the close proximity to Myrtle Beach gives guests the opportunity to turn the tournament into a vacation. And, as the tourism theory goes, maybe they’ll come back.

The Big South tourney is, at least two more times. The three-year deal allows all parties to re-evaluate after the 2014-15 tourney. But barring a CCU move to another conference, my money says this event sticks around in the Grand Strand sand for many years to come.

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