Why Charlotte is betting big on women’s college basketball
It’s been 17 years since players for the Sting — a now-defunct WNBA franchise — bounced balls in Charlotte. And it’s been 27 years since the city hosted a women’s college basketball Final Four, when a Tennessee team coached by the legendary Pat Summitt beat UConn in the semifinals and Georgia for the championship.
Decades have passed, but Charlotte is betting big on women’s basketball again.
Thursday night, the Spectrum Center hosted an important early-season clash between No. 3 Iowa and No. 8 Virginia Tech, two teams that appeared in last spring’s Final Four in Dallas, which shattered attendance records and TV ratings as nearly 10 million people tuned in.
Behind 44 points from Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, the Hawkeyes topped the Hokies 80-76 in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPN2, and an announced crowd of 15,196 fans.
For reference, that’s more fans than the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets are averaging through four home games this season. That attendance figure also made Iowa vs. Virginia Tech the most-attended regular season women's college basketball game in the state of North Carolina, breaking the record of 12,722 set in 2009 when UNC-Chapel Hill hosted UConn at the Dean Smith Center.
“That was awesome,” said Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks. “We went to the Final Four last year, and this atmosphere rivals it. It even got a little bit louder. It was electric… It was unbelievable, from the way we walked into Charlotte and we saw our faces on billboards. It was big-time.”
That is a great stat per @bethmowins and @debbieantonelli on the broadcast: This Iowa-Virginia Tech game has generated roughly $10 million for the Charlotte area. That's right - an early November game with two teams that aren't from North Carolina. Incredible.— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) November 10, 2023
The game was put on through a partnership between the Charlotte Sports Foundation and Ally Financial, complete with a colorful t-shirt sponsorship from the Indiana-based Homefield Apparel.
The Charlotte Sports Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the Queen City through sporting events. It has a hand in organizing the Duke’s Mayo Classic college football game — and the bowl game sharing the name of the mayonnaise brand — and last year began hosting the Jumpman Invitational, a two-day event featuring four basketball games at the Spectrum Center, two men’s games and two women’s.
Miller Yoho, the Director of Communications and Marketing at the Charlotte Sports Foundation says the Ally Tipoff and the Jumpman Invitational is just the beginning of the organization’s — and the city’s — reinvestment in women’s basketball.
“It’s common sense to invest in women’s sports,” Yoho said. “We saw it last year (at the Jumpman Invitational) when we invested and had equal playing courts, equal gifting, equal playing time for both men’s and women’s programs. It did well financially. People showed up. They proved it.
“Charlotte is an incredible event city. Hosting events here works, and it has incredible support of everyone in town. I think you will see more men's and — most importantly — more women's sports here. Because in the end, the financial things are what matters, and the bet we made is paying off.”
When putting together the Ally Tipoff, Yoho said that the University of Iowa was the first call they made. Despite the Hawkeyes being located nearly 1,000 miles away, the team has real star power with Clark — the consensus National Player of the Year last season who has Name, Image, and Likeness deals with national brands like Nike, State Farm, Bose, and Buick. Last month, Iowa played an outdoor exhibition at its football stadium, and more than 55,000 people came to watch Clark and the Hawkeyes, setting the attendance record for women's college basketball.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is less than a three-hour drive from Charlotte and returns three starters from a team that made the Final Four last season, including Guilford County native and two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley.
“Virginia Tech and Iowa checked every box in terms attendance, brand, passionate fanbase, and also playing style,” Yoho said.
Indeed, it was a competitive contest, with Clark trading baskets with Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore, who scored 31 points for the Hokies.
“It's incredible, honestly,” Clark said of the atmosphere. “It seems like there's just a lot of people that are fans of our game, whether it's Iowa fans, Virginia Tech fans, or just people that are here to support women's basketball. And that's why this was put on, because they understand how great women's basketball is and how much it's growing. And people want to buy tickets to this game.”
The ACC’s Women’s Basketball Tournament will return to the Greensboro Coliseum this March for the 24th time in 25 years. But beyond 2024, Charlotte has its eyes on the event.
“Point blank, yes,” Yoho said when asked if Charlotte had interest in hosting the tournament. “We have a great relationship with the ACC. They are tremendous. We love that they’re in Charlotte. We want more ACC events. We already work with ACC football and we would beg to work with them on ACC basketball as well.”
It’s worth noting that ACC commissioner Jim Phillips sits on the board of the Charlotte Sports Foundation. When asked about the future of the women’s basketball tournament at the ACC Tip-Off event in October, Phillips said that the conference wanted to “take advantage of” Charlotte. As part of a deal with the North Carolina state legislature to keep the ACC’s headquarters in the state, the ACC must hold at least four men’s and four women’s basketball tournaments in North Carolina over the next 10 years.
On the NCAA level, locations for women’s Final Fours are booked out through 2031. Should the Charlotte Sports Foundation want to bring the biggest stage of the sport back to the Queen City, it’ll have to wait until 2032.
“I think, certainly, anyone in Charlotte would want that,” Yoho said of Charlotte hosting a Final Four. “Not just even us as an organization – I think the city of Charlotte would embrace that with open arms. What's unique is, it feels like a big event is happening tonight, with the signage and everything, and the players can walk around uptown. We create an event city that is unique and it’s open air and it’s urban safe, and it’s also a place that any large sporting would want to be.”
Next up for women’s basketball and the Charlotte Sports Foundation: The Jumpman Invitational returns. UNC-Chapel Hill’s women’s team plays Oklahoma in the Spectrum Center on Dec. 19, and the Tar Heel men play the Sooners on Dec. 20.