Greenville Nets NCAA ScoreFeb 01, 2017 04:48PM ● By Makayla Gay
By John Jeter
Fridays usually start with granola and yogurt for Mike Buddie. This particular morning, though, would soon prove Wheaties-level, thanks to a huge call during a staff breakfast. “I’d already apologized to the president,” says Furman University’s Athletic Director, “and I said, ‘My phone’s going to be on the table, because if it rings from an Indianapolis number, I’ll take it.’”
At around 9:30 that same October morning, meanwhile, Twitterworld explodes at the Southern Conference headquarters in Spartanburg and at the visitgreenvillesc offices in downtown Greenville with the news: The NCAA just selected Greenville for the Division 1 men’s basketball tournament’s first round, March 17-19, with Furman and SOCON as co-hosts at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Buddie’s first notification didn’t come from an official source, but from Andy Katz, a trusted media contact from Buddie’s most recent position as the No. 2 athletics guy at Wake Forest University—just a half-hour down the road, ironically enough, from Greensboro; that’s where, only a month before, the NCAA announced it was yanking the tournament from North Carolina because of the state’s controversial bathroom bill.
As soon as Katz texted Buddie seeking a quote about the news, “I immediately ran outside and called Andy,” the media-savvy former Yankees right-hander says. “The opportunities for Furman athletics to be mentioned on ESPN’s homepage are few and far between. I knew we had a 20-minute window until a baseball player did something miraculous or LeBron James is found doing something.”
Then reality hit. Greensboro had been awarded the lucrative 2017 prize in 2014. Now Greenville gets only seven months to prepare.
SOCON’s John Iamarino, who has been the conference’s commissioner for 11 years and wasn’t part of Greenville’s first NCAA first-round tourney in 2002, cheered the news. Then, he says, “Not an hour later, the NCAA sent over a multi-100-page manual that we have to follow. They gave us 30 minutes of a honeymoon period to enjoy, and then it was, ‘Okay, here’s what you have to do.’”
Geoff Cabe already knew the score. SOCON’s associate commissioner helped put together the Greenville tournament 14 years ago. As part of a three-day NCAA site visit last November, he coordinated an exhibition match between Furman and Bob Jones University at The Well.
“They’re very detailed in how they operate,” Cabe says of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which puts on 100 championships a year nationwide. “We had marked off the floor with gaffer’s tape to show them, ‘Here’s how far this riser will extend out when we have it set up,’ and they would go in and measure it and say, ‘No, it needs to go another inch this way or another inch that way.’”
And so, as a TV trope goes, teamwork makes the dream work.
“These days it doesn’t take you years in advance to put these things together,” says Chris Stone, visitgreenvillesc’s CEO of 20 years. “Within six months, seven months, we’re going to be in good shape.”
And the money’s great. Furman and SOCON split a $200,000 NCAA honorarium, but spend only about $80,000 on the tournament, which scores an estimated $3.6 million impact for the Upstate, according to numbers from visitgreenvillesc.
The anticipated 14,000 spectators, 560 athletes, coaches, and staff, and several thousand media will decamp in 6,250 hotel rooms. From lodging’s estimated $1 million haul to retail’s expected $743,000 take to restaurants’ and bars’ expected $553,300 income, the whole shootin’ match is an economic slam dunk. As for costs, Greenville’s Chief of Police Ken Miller expects to bill only $13,125 for his cops. Beth Paul, The Well’s general manager since 2015, declines to share venue expenses “until we get all the final invoices in and until we see attendance.”
Says Stone, “We’re already in good shape. Ticket sales are ahead of pace.”
Talk about home-court advantage. Buddie, who owns a 1998 World Series ring from his Bronx Bombers days, knows how to play offense. He began pitching Greenville as a tournament site to Stone, The Well, and city officials within weeks of his arrival last year at Furman.
In May, before the NCAA’s decision in August to quit North Carolina, Furman and SOCON representatives attended an NCAA symposium in Indianapolis to learn more about netting the marquee event for 2018, 2019, and beyond.
There, Buddie says, “The one thing we were selling was the vision of what Greenville can offer: our Main Street and our location. No one else has it.” He rattles off the number of hotels, restaurants, and bars all within a two-mile radius of The Well. As Stone adds, “The hotel piece was easy for us to put together. The arena has already gone through its renovations, and the downtown has really matured.”
The jump shot ultimately went Greenville’s way in part because the NCAA had just lifted its boycott of South Carolina, a ban that had been in place since 2001 over objections to the Confederate battle flag on statehouse grounds. After the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the banner came down, basketball came back up—and then North Carolina politics choked on its own clutch shot when the Tar Heel legislature passed HB2, the Public Facilities & Security Act. That March 2016 law has cost the state an estimated $400 million in canceled concerts, corporate-relocation withdrawals … and another NCAA tourney.
“How ironic that we’re getting our first chance to get back in the game,” Buddie says. “But we’ll take it.”
The field goal’s a three-pointer for the venue: playing a central role in the high-value event; garnering national attention for it; and getting an unplanned boost in The Well’s budget. The arena’s financial blueprint was completed before the NCAA’s award, so, Paul says, “It certainly will create a favorable budget compared to the budget for fiscal ’17.”
Never mind that her court’s now as busy as a hardwood with a few minutes remaining. “March will be here before we know it,” she says, “and we’re getting down to the details, and we’re getting things together really well.”