At long last, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association college basketball tournament will tip off in Baltimore.
The CIAA, the nation's oldest historically Black athletic conference, announced in 2019 a move from longtime home Charlotte to Baltimore. Last year was to be the debut of the event in Charm City, but COVID forced the league to construct a virtual experience to keep its members connected and to showcase Baltimore as a destination.
While the pandemic still lingers, the action moves from computers to the court Feb. 22 through 26 at Royal Farms Arena.
Beyond being part of the buildup toward March Madness, the CIAA event is noteworthy because:
- It is one of the few basketball tournaments that features both male and female competitions the same week at the same venue.
- ESPN will carry all 22 games for the first time.
- The event will mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark measure meant to combat sexual discrimination.
Beyond those key ingredients, CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams sees this month’s festivities as another of the long-awaited family reunions delayed by the pandemic.
“The tournament means a lot to a lot of people,” says McWilliams, the first female commissioner for the CIAA and the first appointed Black commissioner out of 100 conferences representing NCAA Division I, II and III.
Baltimore makes for a natural home for the CIAA on multiple levels. Above all else, its hospitality industry is renowned for playing great hosts for sporting events and conferences year-round. Charm City is also replete with history that resonates with HBCUs. Visit Baltimore, led by President and CEO Al Hutchinson, is partnering with the CIAA to highlight notable cultural landmarks and institutions.
McWilliams, for her part, is also eager to eat some famous crabcakes as well.
“I'm excited that we're going to Baltimore and they get a chance to demonstrate that they know how to be great hosts,” she says.
Given the omicron variant and different travel preferences stemming from the pandemic, McWilliams is hesitant to estimate crowd size for the weeklong festivities.
She’s sure coaches will limit some of the players’ movement in the city to avoid positive COVID tests, and spectators will be asked to wear masks and be vaccinated to attend activities.
“My No. 1 concern is about keeping everyone safe,” McWilliams says.
CIAA athletes, coaches and officials have been rejuvenated with the return of championships this academic year, but the combined basketball tournaments are the conference’s crown jewels.
They are such a force of community growth that McWilliams and company opted for a virtual experience in 2021 rather than just call the whole championship off.
While the CIAA would never want to repeat the online-only festivities, 2021 provided valuable lessons for going forward. Educational components, for instance, will be available to remote attendees uncomfortable with or unable to attend the event in-person.
But with Baltimore’s proximity to so many HBCUs, McWilliams is confident the tournaments will be the reunion the whole conference is looking for.
“It doesn't matter what school you are talking about, there's a sense of community where we enjoy being in each other's presence,” she says.
Photo courtesy of the CIAA