WASHINGTON — The Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament returns to the mid-Atlantic this March after a three-year run in North Charleston, S.C.
It’s a move many associated with the conference hope can reinvigorate the event with sold-out crowds in a more centralized location. This season marks the start of a three-year run at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast Washington, a new venue that seats 4,200 and serves as a practice facility for the NBA’s Washington Wizards as well as the home of the Wizards’ G League affiliate and the WNBA's Washington Mystics.
The CAA Tournament may never reach the heights of its heyday, pre-conference realignment, when fans of James Madison, William & Mary and former members VCU, Richmond and George Mason would annually converge on downtown Richmond as conference schools battled it out for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But the ESA potentially provides a more similar environment than the North Charleston Coliseum, located near College of Charleston, the league’s southernmost member. The North Charleston Coliseum seats nearly 12,000 for basketball, but the 2019 CAA Tournament didn’t see crowds anywhere near capacity.
JMU was once of four teams that played in the tournament’s opening round in front of an announced crowd of 2,578. Two games involving College of Charleston averaged about 4,000 fans and the CAA championship game between Hofstra and Northeastern was played in front of 2,892.
The 2013 CAA championship game, the last in the Richmond Coliseum in which JMU defeated Northeastern, drew 6,038 fans.
"The CAA could not be more excited to announce the new home for its nen's basketball championship at one of DC's newest sports facilities, the Entertainment and Sports Arena," CAA Commissioner Joe D'Antonio said when the tournament site was announced last summer. "We are looking forward to working with Events DC to deliver the best possible championship experience for our fans, administrators, coaches and, most importantly, our student-athletes."
While more tournament games should be played in front of a full house in a brand new state-of-the-art arena, the location offers a bit of a mixed bag.
Perhaps the biggest positive is the ease of travel for many teams and fans. Towson, JMU, William & Mary, Drexel and Delaware are all located within a few-hours drive and the Washington area serves as a large hub for alumni for many of those schools.
When Hofstra and Northeastern, the conference’s two northernmost members, advanced to the CAA title game last March, it proved difficult for fans to travel to Charleston for the championship on short notice.
But DC is a relatively short train ride from Boston and New York and the Washington area is served by three major airports, including Regan National, which is about a 15-minute drive from the arena, and the Congress Heights station on the Green Line of Washington’s Metro system is a short walk.
But while the arrival of a conference tournament can often create an almost carnival-like environment in the surrounding neighborhood, the arrival of the CAA in Washington comes in the early stages of a redevelopment in the Congress Heights neighborhood.
Surrounding the Entertainment and Sports Arena are the remains of the St. Elizabeth’s hospital campus, once DC’s oldest medical facility. Most of the St. Elizabeth’s area is set to be converted into housing and Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates the Wizards, Mystics and other DC professional teams, has agreed to spend $10 million on bringing more businesses to the area.
In February, plans were announced for a “town square-style” retail complex and the first hotel on the St. Elizabeth’s side of the Anacostia River. But the overall process of the neighborhood revitalization won’t be far along by March and options for eating, drinking and congregation outside the arena could be limited in the tournament’s first DC season.
“It’s a really comfortable, family-friendly place inside the building, but it doesn’t have the same things going on outside compared to Chinatown,” a fan said at a recent Mystics game, referring to neighborhood around Capital One Arena, the former home of the Mystics where the Wizards still play.
But that will come, as the city envisions Congress Heights eventually becoming revitalized in the same manner as the Chinatown/Gallery Place area, or Navy Yard where the Washington Nationals play.
And perhaps Washingtoncan become the league’s first long-term host since leaving Richmond after mixed results in terms of attendance and enthusiasm in Baltimore and Charleston.