Maui Invitational heading inland, to bring nation's top basketball teams to Asheville

LAHAINA, HI - NOVEMBER 22: Fans pack the Lahaina Civic Center to watch the Maui Invitational NCAA college basketball game between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Oklahoma State Cowboys at the Lahaina Civic Center on November 22, 2016 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

The nation’s annual in-season college basketball tournament, the Maui Invitational, is re-locating to Asheville this fall!

The Asheville-Buncombe Regional Sports Commission director confirms Harrah’s Cherokee Center has landed the event that includes top college teams including North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Alabama, Stanford, Providence, UNLV and Davidson.

Those involved in the Tournament – teams, staff, officials and ESPN media – will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue. The Tournament will follow North Carolina guidelines on mass gatherings.

“We couldn’t be more excited and deeply honored to bring the Maui Jim Maui Invitational here to Asheville,” said Demp Bradford, president of the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission. “Asheville’s ability to host this top-level sporting event is a testament to state and local partnerships built on a track record of welcoming and supporting national, and international, competitive events to Buncombe County.”

The tournament, which is typically played in Maui, was originally set to take place on Nov 23-25 in Hawaii but had to be moved due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the actual dates have not been officially announced yet, it's expected to again be near the end of November.

Harrah’s Cherokee Center includes the Arena, which has a capacity of 7,674. The arena has hosted a variety of concerts and also hosted Southern Conference basketball tournaments in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

It’s expected that teams will play at Harrah’s for three days around Thanksgiving, with the games being televised on ESPN.

Tickets may or may not be sold, depending on the state’s phasing at the time of play.

The Tournament is expected to generate more than $1.1 million in economic impact in Buncombe County, according to Bradford.

In recent years, Asheville has landed such quality athletic competitions as the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas (with both Serena and Venus Williams on the Team USA roster), the Southern Conference and Big South Basketball Championships, iconic outdoor events like Haute Route and Spartan Race, as well as extreme trail races such as the Black Mountain Marathon and Mount Mitchell Challenge.

ABRSC worked closely with Buncombe County health officials and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to develop a plan that makes safety a priority for this tournament as well as multiple sporting events that could be hosted in the Asheville area. Those involved and traveling to Asheville for the Tournament will undergo testing throughout the event.

Surrounded by the highest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi and intersected by “America’s Favorite Scenic Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville is steeped in natural history, outdoor adventure and cultural legacies. The city’s backdrop features one million acres of protected wilderness, thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails and George Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre legacy, Biltmore Estate. At the heart of Asheville is a vibrant downtown brimming with Art Deco architecture, James Beard chefs, craft breweries and distilleries and an innovative art, music and theater scene.

“Love for athletics runs strong in these mountains,” said Chris Cavanaugh, interim executive of Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Asheville is thrilled to share the national spotlight offered by high-caliber events like the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. These events enrich and enliven our community on many levels as an opportunity to celebrate this compelling region and its sporting history.”

The Tournament will result in a homecoming for North Carolina coach Roy Williams, a three-time national champion and 2007 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame who was born and raised in Western North Carolina. In high school, Williams lettered in basketball and baseball at Asheville’s T. C. Roberson. His first coaching job was at Charles D. Owen High School in nearby Black Mountain.