The Maui Invitational, a prestigious early season college basketball tournament, is coming to Asheville at the end of November. Several reports have the event being held Nov. 30- Dec. 2, but the dates have not been finalized.
The event is expected to generate $1.1 million in economic impact for Buncombe County, according to Demp Bradford, president of Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission.
“We entered the process several months ago, talking with Kemper Lesnik the event’s owner,” Bradford said. “From day one we went after it. We took the approach, we wanted to be the location they selected, so we went through a detailed process to get approval on all levels.”
The annual tournament normally occurs the week of Thanksgiving in Lahaina, Hawaii but in an effort to lower the risk of COVID-19 contamination, the NCAA has moved the tournament inland and no fans will be allowed to attend the games.
“Events like this are a lot of the time about relationships,” Bradford said. “Especially when people have to make adjustments quickly or without a lot of time. We have a venue that’s basically a plug-and-play venue. The Lahaina Center in Maui is literally a recreation center and they spend weeks building seats and bringing in video boards. We have that.”
Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission has added onto the NCAA guidelines COVID-19 procedures to help further ensure a safe environment for the city and the teams.
“We’re trying to mitigate the risk to our community,” Bradford said. “So basically the teams won’t get a chance to enjoy the things we all love about Asheville. They’ll be coming in to stay in a hotel room, prepare for the game, go to the area to play the game and come back.” Janet Cone, the Director of Athletics at UNC Asheville, said UNCA will play a role in hosting the visiting teams during the tournament. “We are letting the other teams practice [at Kimmel Arena] as part of their protocol. The great thing about our university through the years is anytime we partner with and help our community- it’s a good thing,” Cone said.
Cone and Bradford are excited about the event and confident every step will be taken to ensure the safety of the community and visiting teams. Along with no fans being allowed to attend the games, all players and staff will go through COVID-19 testing before and during their stay in Asheville. They will also have regular temperature checks and strict limits on the time spent outside of their hotel rooms. Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission and the NCAA have taken every step to ensure the tournament meets all local and state guidelines involving COVID-19.
“We have been trying to secure something like this for a long time so people can see we can host bigger basketball tournaments. I am humbled that Demp would ask me to help advise the project,” Cone said.
Fall semester ends over a week before the tournament is scheduled to begin so the campus will be empty and there will be no concern for students coming into contact with the visiting teams while they practice on campus. The invitational is made up of 8 teams: North Carolina, Davidson College, Texas, Indiana, Alabama, Providence, Stanford and UNLV. The 12 games will be played at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in the ExploreAsheville.com Arena and the games will be televised on ESPN and ESPN2.
“I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago when I heard Asheville might be one of the locations that was being considered as an alternate site,” said Roy Williams, UNC Chapel Hill Men’s basketball team head coach. “From what I understand, the people in Asheville did a great job explaining to the tournament staff that they run the Southern Conference Tournament there, they have the hotel space, they have everything we would need and at the end of the day it looks like Asheville won out through that process.”
This will be the Tar Heels eighth time competing in the Maui Invitational, the most of any other college team. They have won the tournament three of those times and went on to win the national championship those same seasons.
“Maui is one of my favorite places to go, but my hometown is as well, and I congratulate the people in Asheville because they did a great job convincing the tournament organizers that they will do a great job. Now I have to concern myself with making sure our basketball team plays well,” Williams said.