SPARTANBURG, S.C. – The Southern Conference has reached an agreement with representatives from the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, Buncombe County and the City of Asheville, North Carolina, to continue to host the league’s men’s and women’s basketball championships at Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville through 2026. The new five-year deal extends a partnership that has proven successful for both the league and the Asheville community for more than two decades.
“This is a historic day to extend the Southern Conference’s long-standing and successful partnership with Asheville to host our basketball championships,” SoCon Commissioner Jim Schaus said. “Over the 101 SoCon basketball championships, Asheville has hosted the most of any city. What makes this tournament special is how the city and area community embrace it, having an ideal venue and how much our schools and fans enjoy coming here.
“I would like to thank the sports commission, City of Asheville, Buncombe County commissioners, local organizing committee, volunteers, my outstanding staff and our title sponsor Ingles and presenting sponsor General Shale of the last several years for making this tournament not only the oldest conference basketball tournament but the best. We can’t wait to work together with our outstanding local team to continue grow this event for years to come.”
First contested in 1921, the SoCon men’s tournament is the nation’s oldest collegiate conference tournament. Asheville has served as host to the SoCon’s championship more than another other location, with the 22-year history of the tournament in the city comprising a 12-year run from 1984-95 and the current 10-year run that began in 2012. At the end of the current extension, the tournament will have been in Asheville for 15 consecutive years, which will eclipse a 14-year stay in Raleigh, North Carolina, from 1933-46 as the longest stretch the tournament has stayed in one location consecutively.
The SoCon women’s basketball championship has been contested in Asheville 11 times, with the semifinals and final played there in 1995 before the current 10-year stretch.
“The Southern Conference Basketball Championships have a rich tradition in Asheville and we are excited that the tournaments will remain in Asheville through 2026,” Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission President Demp Bradford said. “This is more than basketball for our community – it’s the Downtown Dribble, Education Days and Hometown Heroes. All of these special events surround some of the best basketball in the country, and Asheville is excited to continue to be the home of this tournament.”
After a 17-year absence, the SoCon tournaments’ return to Asheville in 2012 was a resounding success, with the men’s tournament drawing more than 12,000 additional fans from the year prior. The relationship between the tournament and Asheville has continued to flourish, as four of the last five tournament title games have sold out. The 2020 tournament averaged just under 5,000 fans per session, the best average attendance for the league since 2012.
While COVID protocols drastically limited attendance in 2021, all 18 SoCon teams were able to participate and the tournament was played to completion, sending men’s champion UNCG and women’s champion Mercer to the NCAA postseason.
“Explore Asheville and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is thrilled that the Southern Conference Basketball Championships will tip off in Asheville once again,” said Vic Isley, President & CEO of Explore Asheville. “The long-standing Southern Conference partnership results in positive economic value and meaningful community engagement, generating nearly $4 million direct spending for local businesses in past years just before we swing into spring season.”
The entirety of the men’s tournament run in Asheville has been contested at Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville. With renovations to the building part of the initial draw to bring the SoCon back to Asheville, the venue has continued to make improvements, with new videoboards and ribbon boards installed ahead of the 2021 championships.
“For over 20 years, our venue has been proud to host the SoCon Championships for men’s and women’s basketball,” Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville General Manager Chris Corl said. “As we move forward in returning to large-scale elite athletic and music events, we are honored to say that the Southern Conference Basketball Championships will remain one of our favorite anchor events of the year.”
The 2022 SoCon Basketball Championships are scheduled for March 3-7.