The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association has planned on changing up its basketball tournament for some time. But little did it know this year’s event would be unlike anything Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams imagined.
The nation’s oldest historically Black athletic conference announced in 2019 its intent to move the weeklong basketball celebration to Baltimore. In doing so, the league scheduled activities to highlight Charm City’s proud heritage, particularly when it comes to African American history.
A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the CIAA’s first trip to Baltimore: COVID-19. As a result, a week’s worth of top-notch basketball is being replaced with a virtual tournament, Feb. 23-27. Dubbed CIAA Virtual Vibe, the event marks the 76th consecutive year the conference will celebrate HBCU championship basketball, sports, culture and legacy.
“The greatest thing about sports is that the culture of sports can reach so many different areas—from social justice to mental health to leadership development,” McWilliams says. “We've always done that. But this time, we have to be different with how we do it, and how we showcase it across all of our platforms.”
As early as last March, McWilliams knew there was a chance the basketball element of the tournament would not be possible in 2021. By the time she and other league officials made the difficult decision in December, there was already a game plan in place to maintain its relationship with the athletics community and host city.
“It can’t be just some Zoom experience. It has to be something that's going to engage, provide access, and give opportunity and a return on investment,” she says of the event.
The agenda should accomplish those goals. Among the activities planned are:
- Virtual speaking series
- CIAA fan box available for pre-purchase
- Education day to reach Baltimore’s public school system
- Career expo
- Esports tournament
- Virtual fan fest
- Replaying last year’s tournament action.
The platform will feature a Baltimore-themed interactive virtual platform that will help welcome fans to the city. While it’s not the same as hosting 150,000 fans over several days, the event serves as a showcase for Visit Baltimore.
“Visit Baltimore was extremely excited about bringing the tournament experience to Charm City this year, so we’re grateful the Virtual Tournament Week allows us to partner with the CIAA in this new capacity,” says Al Hutchinson, the CVB’s president and CEO. “While we’ll have to celebrate the incredible academic contributions, culture and sports legacy of HBCUs from afar this year, we can’t wait to welcome CIAA athletes and fans to Baltimore as soon as it’s safe.”
McWilliams says the conference’s universities will ensure its student-athletes participate in the program. Not only does this help bring the athletes closer together virtually, but the more engaging the virtual experience is, the better it is for recruiting future students and student-athletes to HBCUs.
“The great thing about this platform is when we see the success of it, we can take elements of this event moving forward that will reach a larger demographic of people,” says McWilliams. “And I do believe when we get back to in-person, we're going to bust the seams of the DMV area because that’s what we do.”
Photos courtesy of the CIAA