There was a time not too long ago when sporting events at U.S. Cellular Center were limited to the annual Southern Conference Basketball Tournament, an occasional Toughman Contest and not much else.
But no more, as general manager Chris Corl and the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission are working together to bring more bookings to the arena.
Last weekend was the inaugural Mountain Invitational basketball event, featuring two men’s games involving Big South Conference schools vs. SoCon teams, highlighted by the UNC Asheville vs. Western Carolina rivalry.
This weekend a high-school wrestling tournament involving 12 teams will be conducted at U.S. Cellular, and the new year brings several events, including one new effort expected to sell out the building.
Both the Mountain Invitational and the wrestling tournament – the Headlock on Hunger Theraworx Protect Great Smoky Mountain Grapple - are joint ventures between the arena and the ABRSC.
“The teams are competing not only in wrestling but to see who can bring the most food in pounds to donate to Eblen Charities,” said Demp Bradford, executive director of ABRSC.
“What we are trying to do is figure out how we can continue to expand sports in Asheville, and how we can use the facilities and resources we have. The Cellular Center is a great venue for sports.”
The Fed Cup team tennis competition between The Netherlands and the United States February 10-11 could include American stars like Sloane Stephens, the U.S. Open champion.
Bradford said ticket sales are going well for the Fed Cup and he expects both days to sell out the arena.
In January, Gala Gymnastics will take over the U.S. Cellular Center and applications for 1,400 athletes have sold out.
And of course the SoCon tourney, with an annual economic impact estimated at $6.5 million, will be conducted March 1-5.
“We have a very progressive manager in Chris Corl, who is experienced in working in sporting events in arenas,” said Bradford.
“We’re working together and trying to make things happen in Asheville.”
And there is a plan in the works to bring even more basketball to downtown Asheville. While details still need to be worked out, a promoter wants to bring a Thanksgiving weekend tournament (Battle of the Blue Ridge), possibly including teams from the ACC, SEC and some mid-majors.
That’s quite a slate for the 44-year old building enjoying a renaissance after a $14 million makeover in recent years that was spearheaded by Asheville Economic Development head Sam Powers and designed to lure the SoCon tourney back to town.
The world’s oldest collegiate basketball tournament had a successful 12-year run at what was then named the Asheville Civic Center from 1984-95, and the declining conditions of the building was a major reason for the league’s departure.
But the facelift and Asheville’s exploding growth in tourism fueled by the craft beer industry, a funky and diverse downtown and River Arts District scenes and new hotel developments have made WNC an even more attractive site for sporting events.
“Kudos to the Tourism Development Authority (which funded through grants the renovation of the Cellular Center), which turned a building that was in bad shape into something beautiful,” said UNC Asheville athletic director Janet Cone, who was also the first head of the ABRSC and still serves on the board.
“That has allowed the sports commission and (Corl) to host more events.”
In addition to plans for the Battle of the Blue Ridge, Cone wants to grow the Mountain Invitational.
“Asheville loves college basketball, and we would like to this progress to a two-day event with eight teams and three or four games a day,” she said.
“We think the best-kept secret in college basketball is how good the mid-majors play. The more we expose our fans to this kind of play, the more people are going to come to this event.”
The ABRSC’s goal is to bring more events to WNC, especially in the slower tourism winter months, and working with Corl is a natural move to achieve those goals.
“There is so much to do in Asheville the year round now, not just leaf season or not just Christmas,” said Bradford.
“People love to come here, to walk around and shop and eat and stay in our hotels,” said Cone. “If there are going to be big college basketball tournaments, why not Asheville?”