Beyond the Scoreboard: SoCon tourney and Asheville – a couple meant to be together

socon us cellular center.jpeg
A full house at the U.S. Cellular Center has been a common sight for the Southern Conference tournament. (Photo courtesy of Southern Conference) 

Not many marriages can survive a 16-year separation, but the union of the Southern Conference Basketball Championships and the city of Asheville has thrived and flourished as a relationship that now spans 35 years.

Healthy profits for the city and the conference have been a staple of the grouping since the two found each other again in 2012, when the SoCon tourney returned to Asheville after a 16-year absence.

Now the reunion is in its seventh season when the Southern Conference’s men and women’s teams come to Asheville this weekend, March 1-5.

Sometime early in the 2018 tourney, the 200,000th fan will walk through the turnstiles since the event returned to Asheville.

The league and the city have enjoyed profits combined in the millions of dollars, and the estimated annual economic impact for WNC over five days is more than $6 million.

The first coupling – from 1984-85 – included explosive growth for the league, the coming together of powerful men’s basketball programs with strong fan bases from Chattanooga, East Tennessee State and Marshall and a city with a properly sized arena to host exciting mid-major college basketball.

With the built-in tournament drama of win or go home, the possibility of underdogs roaring to the championship game with Cinderella thoughts of stealing an NCAA tournament invite, the SoCon brought compelling basketball to the dance.

Asheville provided an ideal host community, a group of business and political leaders and a strong cadre of volunteers that welcomed thousands of fans to a city still a decade or two away from exploding into the tourist mecca it is today.

Back then bringing 20,000 to 30,000 fans to Western North Carolina, on the first weekend of March was a novel and exciting idea, and merchants welcomed the new business with open arms.

And so it went for 12 years, with either Chattanooga, East Tennessee State (four championships each) and Marshall (three titles) winning the trophy in 11 of the 12 seasons.

Marshall fans, as many as 3,000 some years, inundated Asheville’s downtown with $2 bills to let everyone know of their presence.

Ticket scalpers made hay when the Volunteer State rivalry of Chattanooga-ETSU squared off, selling out the 7,300-seat Asheville Civic Center.

And as the tournament grew, so did the interest from other, bigger cities. The SoCon tourney was such a success that Greensboro – with a newly renovated Coliseum and open dates the week before the venerable ACC Tournament came to town – made an offer the SoCon couldn’t refuse and Asheville couldn’t afford to match.

So the tournament left the city in 1995 for a trophy wife that turned out to be unfaithful. For the SoCon, the move to Greensboro began a nomadic tour for the nation’s oldest collegiate tournament, with eight moves in 16 years.

Asheville turned to fly-by-night minor league professional teams to rent the Civic Center and try to recreate the atmosphere and profits of the SoCon.

Two hockey teams, a pair of basketball teams and a laughably inept all-star football game came and went, leaving behind a trail of failure, unpaid debts and unsatisfied fans.

And then Sam Powers had an idea. As an undergraduate at Appalachian State, he loved coming to Asheville and soaking in the atmosphere of SoCon weekend.

As the economic development director of Asheville and the head of the renamed and aging U.S. Cellular Center, Powers believed he could reunite the estranged couple.

The newly-formed Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, with Asheville leadership that remembered what the SoCon once did for the city, put together a competitive bid to ask the league to bring its tourney back to town.

The league, anxious to quit packing and moving the show every few years, was receptive.

Deals and promises were made. The city would commit to an extensive, multi-million-dollar renovation of the U.S. Cellular Center if the SoCon returned.

The SoCon committed to one year but would extend the deal if the renovations came to pass.

With Powers’ influence, Asheville Tourism Development Authority provided grants to pay for the renovations in exchange for the expectation that the SoCon teams and fans would put heads in beds by the thousands.

The reconciliation came in 2012, and the unveiling showed that the city and the tournament were meant to be together.

A total of 21 tournament games drew more than 41,000 fans, a record yet to be surpassed, and it was immediately evident that Asheville was where this event belonged.

Seven years later, with a contract that runs through 2021, Asheville and the SoCon will celebrate the league’s 100th consecutive tourney in three years.

Attendance has been steady, averaging 32,360 fans per tourney over six years.

This is the 19th time Asheville will host the event, more than any other city in the SoCon’s long and illustrious history.

And it appears to be a marriage that will last.

This is the opinion of Keith Jarrett. Contact him at