“Our folks are extremely happy,” said Robin Wright, a senior sales manager for VisitGreenvilleSC. “These events are full of fun and energy.”
But about 190 miles northeast in Greensboro, the fun and energy have been squashed. The loss of the tournament games was a sharp rebuke to North Carolina, with the N.C.A.A. declaring that the state’s contentious law — which curbs anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and is known as H.B. 2 — was discriminatory.
The decision to ban championship events from being held in the state meant that not only Greensboro but also Raleigh and Charlotte — two other regular stops for the N.C.A.A. tournament — were ineligible to host games. (The Atlantic Coast Conference imposed similar restrictions for its championship events, and the N.B.A. moved its All-Star Game out of the state for this season.)
“It’s a bit sobering because we’re such a sports town,” said Kim Strable, the president of the Greensboro Sports Commission. “We have done back-to-back A.C.C. men’s and A.C.C. women’s tournaments before and the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament, so we are quite the tournament town. ‘Tournament Town’ is a logo here, you know.”
The concern now is that it could be five years — or more — before Greensboro is a tournament town again. The sites for the 2018 event were awarded several years ago, and Charlotte will most likely be replaced as an early-round site for that tournament unless H.B. 2 is repealed, which appears unlikely. And while Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte submitted bids for the next cycle of tournament games, from 2019 to 2022, they will be barred from hosting as long as the law remains in place.
The N.C.A.A. had planned to announce the winners of the 2019-22 bids in December, but Strable said it postponed the decision to give North Carolina’s General Assembly time to modify or pull back the law. The announcement of the sites is now scheduled for April 18, but Strable said it could be made as early as this week.
The bans could spread, too; on Tuesday, the Texas Senate gave tentative approval to a so-called bathroom bill that is similar to the North Carolina legislation. If that bill becomes law, Texas could stand to lose its own N.C.A.A. events, including next season’s men’s Final Four in San Antonio.
For organizers in the affected cities, the bans are not merely a political squabble. Strable said that tourism in Guilford County, which includes Greensboro, brought in $1.2 billion per year, and the N.C.A.A. is a significant part of that revenue — not just with basketball, but with championships in other sports as well.
Still, basketball drives the most interest and the most money, and it is a big part of the city’s sports identity: Greensboro has hosted 63 N.C.A.A. tournament basketball games, the fifth-highest total by a city.
“It is very difficult to be optimistic,” Strable said of the political debate over H.B. 2. “There isn’t enough positive vibe coming out of the Legislature that we know about. There is a real standoff.”
Those dim prospects could play into South Carolina’s hands. Greenville has submitted bids for the N.C.A.A. men’s and women’s tournaments for the 2019-22 cycle of bids, and the state capital, Columbia, is also bidding.
“That whole situation is unfortunate for those guys in North Carolina, but if an opportunity presents itself and we are able to accommodate, we are going to do that,” Wright, of VisitGreenvilleSC, said.
South Carolina officials know that they, too, are at the mercy of factors beyond their control when it comes to the convergence of politics and sports. There had been little interest in removing the Confederate battle flag from the State Capitol grounds until a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, killed nine people at a Charleston church on June 17, 2015.
The episode prompted South Carolina legislators to reconsider the implications of the continued display of a Confederate symbol at the Capitol, and less than a month later, at the urging of Gov. Nikki R. Haley, they voted to take it down.
“There wasn’t a lot of real energy to take the flag down,” said Susan Dunn, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. “The governor was not interested in taking that down herself. If the politics had stayed the same, the closest site to host the N.C.A.A. tournament would have been Georgia.”
It can be difficult to gauge the precise economic effect that losing the games has had on business owners in the Greensboro area, but Roy Williams, the North Carolina men’s basketball coach, has been unafraid to weigh in on the turbulence. He has called H.B. 2 “ridiculous” and “stupid.”
But Williams may have competitive reasons for wanting to play closer to home: North Carolina is 33-1 in N.C.A.A. tournament games played in its home state. That lone loss came on March 11, 1979 — to Penn in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. Hours later, Duke was upset on the same floor by St. John’s in what A.C.C. fans came to call Black Sunday.
The Tar Heel state is looking at another dark day or two this week, and maybe more in coming years. In response to a letter from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and Athlete Ally, a group aimed at ending homophobia in sports, the N.C.A.A.’s president, Mark Emmert, affirmed his organization’s hosting policies.
“The board and I remain committed to maintaining a college sports experience that is inclusive and fair for all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Emmert wrote this week. “As the next round of site selections is underway, this commitment has not changed.”