The male model wearing the canary yellow suit and thousand-yard stare peered into the empty rows of the Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh.

The fashion show had been touted as one of many must-see events related to the weeklong MEAC basketball tournament in March. Men flashed their chiseled abs from beneath unzipped parkas, and women paraded onstage dressed as coquettish jailbirds, dominatrix prison guards and nightstick-wielding cops. Yet, tickets cost a steep $30 and the 600-seat venue was three-quarters empty.

The turnout symbolizes Raleigh’s first two years of hosting the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament, during which 11 historically black colleges and universities compete for a berth in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. Organizers failed to meet fundraising goals in 2006 and 2007, forcing the city and county to pony up $400,000 from general funds to cover the shortfall, according to the Raleigh/Wake Steering Committee report evaluating the tournament’s performance. The report also raised questions about the tournament’s viability in Raleigh.

“Fundraising was off this year, which meant that we had to have an advance from the city,” wrote Raleigh Assistant City Manager Lawrence Wray in his evaluation of the 2007 tournament. “I do not think that we can do this for another year.”

Although the steering committeemore than 20 city, county and business leadersemphasize the tournament’s positive aspects, committee documents show some members are concerned about fund-raising and commitment from the conference. In the coming weeks, local leaders will decide whether to rebid for the 2009-2011 tournament; they are contracted with MEAC through 2008.

“Considering the expectations, it’s doing pretty well,” says Wake Deputy County Manager Joe Durham, pointing to increased attendance figures from ’06 to ’07. “Some may have gone into this thinking this will be the next CIAA. It will not, and that presents a challenge for us. From the county and sponsors’ perspective we have to decide whether the investment is worth it.”

For six years, Raleigh hosted the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament, which, despite being a Division II conference, is the third-largest playoff in the country, and a rite of spring renowned for its parties and social events. By the time Charlotte outbid the city for the 2006 tournament, it was drawing more than 100,000 people to Raleigh annually.

MEAC, a struggling, nomadic tournament that had shuttled among six cities since 1993, had no basketball reputation. Unlike the CIAA, which includes eight North Carolina schools, MEAC’s colleges are spread from Delaware to southern Florida. Only one is in the state, N.C. A&T in Greensboro. MEAC is better known for its football program.

“We didn’t bid for what the tournament was,” says Scott Dupree, director of sports marketing for the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau, “but what it could be.”

There were growing pains from the get-go. Although the city bid for the tournament in January 2005, the winner wasn’t announced until early Junetwo months later than promiseddelaying fund-raising and marketing plans. Richmond attendance numbers were overstated by 10,000 because of how ticket books and individual tickets were counted, which affected Raleigh’s initial projections, according to Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. Dupree visited Richmond for the 2005 tournament, which, after readjusting the numbers, attracted 15,000 people. In an e-mail to government leaders, Dupree wrote that “MEAC is disorganized.”

MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas says he is unaware of any ticket discrepancies in Richmond. He declined to comment on criticisms about the tournament’s organization.

Attendance for the 2006 tournament in Raleigh was just over 22,500; this year, it increased to more than 30,000, prompting Thomas to declare the tournament “a success.”

However, nearly 20 percent of those tickets were free as part of military and youth night promotions. At least a half-dozen unsold box suites were given away. Thomas says the ticket price breakdown, the records of which are kept at the MEAC office, is not available.

Economic impact and tax revenue have increased, but not enough, according to Wray, who wrote in a recent evaluation of the 2007 tournament, “the downside is it only generated $343,884 in tax revenue. This should be taken into consideration as the partners make a decision as to whether to bid on the tournament for next triennial.”

However, Meeker says the tax revenues helped soften the $400,000 hit to government coffers. “The [$57,000] difference isn’t large given the size of the governments.”

According to the contract between MEAC and the city and county, if the steering committee raises enough funds in corporate sponsorships, local governments don’t have to chip in to cover expenses. Both years, the steering committee’s fundraising started several months late. This year, sponsorships totaled just under $300,000, due in part because potential sponsors bucked at the prices. For the CIAA, an entry-level sponsorship cost $1,500-$2,000; the same level of benefits for MEAC started at $5,000, yet sponsors reached far fewer people, says committee member Lew Myers, director of business development for Freelon Architects, among the 2007 tournaments’ 31 sponsors.

“It’s hard to get people to re-up,” Myers says. “I need people in the seats.”

There are empty seats at the RBC Center because students and alumni from MEAC schools aren’t attending en masse. MEAC schools were required to sell about 300 tickets each, and there is no incentive for them to move more.

To build interest among the schools and commissioner’s office, the steering committee paid former state auditor Ralph Campbell and his consulting firm more than $29,000 over four months. (This sum is in addition to the $8,450 monthly retainer paid to Raleigh’s Joselyn Marketing Group for event coordination, including the $25,000 fashion show.)

Campbellwho was the steering committee chairman until the committee hired him as its consultantorganized conference calls between Commissioner Thomas and the committee. Campbell met with key personnel, including presidents and chancellors at six of the 11 schools. A seventh meeting was canceled when the Hampton University president reportedly had a scheduling conflict five minutes before its start.

That local leaders essentially had to pay for a relationship with MEAC, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in operational and scholarship expenses, seems to support an anonymous comment included in the committee’s evaluation: “The city and county seem more vested in MEAC than the owners of the event.”

Meeker disagrees. “There’s been a lack of coordination between the local committee and conference staff, but I’ve never questioned the commissioner’s commitment.”

Thomas says more alumni and students attended in ’07 than ’06, because of additional institutional support. “We’ve improved participation,” he says. “We recognize the institutions need to be engaged.”

Thomas adds that he’s been pleased with the commitment from city and county leaders. “We value the partnership and obviously we want toand expect toget better.”

Steering committee members are pinning their hopes on the 2010 and 2011 tournaments, when state schools Winston-Salem State and N.C. Central universities, both former CIAA teams, become eligible to play in the MEAC conference. Yet, given the fund-raising and organizational issues, several committee members are wondering if the city and county should gamble on it.

“From our perspective, we’d like to retain it, if the stakeholders do, and if we as a community, with MEAC, come up with a solid business plan,” says Dupree, of the visitors bureau. “I still believe this event has long-term potential, but can we get through the first three years? I don’t have the answer to that question.”

Growing pains

Although the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference plays in NCAA Division I, its basketball tournament is smaller than the CIAA, a Division II conference. In comparing the conferences’ first two years in Raleigh, MEAC generated less than half of the economic impact produced by the CIAA. City and county officials hope to grow the tournament, particularly when Winston-Salem State University and N.C. Central University become eligible to play in the conference in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

CIAA Tournament MEAC Tournament 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 Economic impact
(millions of dollars) $7.7 $8.8 $9.7 $10.2 $11.5 $12 $3.3 $4.1 Tax revenue
(thousands of dollars) $562 $641 $770 $859 $983 $1,030 $274 $343

Source: Wake County