CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - Conway was the 43rd location considered, far from the first choice. But, the highest profile sporting event the Grand Strand has hosted in more than a decade is now underway, and it took less than a month for our area to land the ACC Women's Basketball Tournament.
In September 2016, the Atlantic Coast Conference announced it was pulling its championship events from the state of North Carolina, citing House Bill Two, the state law now known as the Bathroom Bill. In October 2016, the conference announced the new sites.
"In the middle of September, I started calling every venue that I could identify that had hosted NCAA or State basketball events," said Nora Lynn Finch, ACC Senior Associate Commissioner for women's basketball.
Finch had a long list of criteria and a short amount of time to pick a site for the tournament. She says she would've loved to take the event to Disney in Orlando. The scheduling didn't work. She searched from Maine to Miami. Nothing was working.
"I prayed fervently those three weeks I was searching, and I never was concerned," she said. "People around me were getting really anxious and all I could say was, 'I don't know where it's going to be but it's going to be good, I'm prayerful about this, I have a peace about it.' 'But Nora Lynn you're oh-for-42.' I said, 'I know, but I don't need but one.'"
She expanded her search and realized Conway, South Carolina had a gym to play in, a community excited for a sporting event, a regional airport, plenty of hotel rooms and two crucial corporate sponsors for ACC women's basketball, Food Lion and Bojangles', had a presence. But, she says the credit should go to the people she was able to connect with in the rushed planning process.
"I'm thinking I think I'll give Matt Hogue a call," she said. "I did and he could not have been nicer."
"I actually got the phone call about 5:30 one day," said Hogue, the CCU Athletic Director. "I was the only one still left in the office, it was kind of a quiet middle of the week. Just took the call and began talking with their folks."
Ultimately, this deal got done because of two groups: the school and the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
"That month was just hectic," said Mike Anderson, Executive Director of Sports Tourism for MBACC. "Phone calls obviously every single day, email an incredible amount of email traffic. A lot of phone calls were made to the ACC once that announcement was made to say, 'hey, we'd love to host you, don't know exactly what event is available for the Myrtle Beach region and the Grand Strand, but we'd love to figure out a way to bring the ACC here to the market.'"
Anderson made it clear the Grand Strand was ready to host all of the people. Hogue made it clear CCU was ready to host all of the games.
"We simply had to do our part and step up and say absolutely we can handle and manage a tournament here," Hogue said.
Part of this deal was luck. Had the Coastal Carolina men's basketball team been at home for its regular season finale this weekend, it would've been much tougher to accommodate the event.
Finch says there are some things that fell into place that are tough to explain.
"God doesn't leave anything out," she said. "When he puts the pieces together, it's perfect."
There are a lot of obvious differences between Greensboro, North Carolina and Conway, South Carolina. Greensboro has long been the home of both the men's and women's ACC basketball tournaments, and it has a 23,000 seat arena to host the highest level of basketball competition. Conway has the brand new, but significantly smaller, HTC Center. Finch says it's both a concern and an opportunity.
"I'm considering this an opportunity for a great atmosphere for ten games," she said. "So yes, I'm concerned that there are 32-hundred seats instead of 64-hundred. Yes, I am. Would I take the working relationship we've had with the folks at Coastal, with the people here at Myrtle Beach, with this location for our teams, this close to the heart of the ACC in an ACC state, over a five-thousand or ten-thousand-seat arena that's in another state that's not a destination? No, I'll take Coastal Carolina."
And Conway is close enough to Greensboro that it isn't going to blow the conference's budget. The ACC pays travel expenses for 75 members of each of the 15 schools in the tournament. That includes cheerleaders, bands and support staff. It's also housing TV crews and volunteers.
While Anderson is responsible for making sure the teams and VIP guests are housed and well-taken care of, the contract for the event is actually between CCU and the ACC.
It shows the conference paid a $100,000 facility fee to use the HTC Center from Monday night through Sunday's championship.
It details what the school is responsible for: security for the arena, police escorts for the teams and local promotion of the event among other things. It also spells out what Coastal Carolina stands to bring in from food and merchandise sales.
But Hogue says this isn't necessarily about the bottom line.
"I think audition's a good word," he said, "but I think every day we're always on audition. I think that's the way we operate."
"Audition is a great word," said Anderson. "We are now proving to the ACC that not only we can host one of their major championships, but we can host many of their events in the future."
Finch says she's happy she found a place that feels like home for the rest of the week.
"It can't come together this fast in most places."