An interesting look at the sports event industry in Greater Raleigh, N.C. 

The Raleigh Convention Center is accustomed to hosting events best described as wall-to-wall basketball. That’s exactly what the scene will be on the convention center floor July 16-20 when the U.S. Basketball Association’s (USBA's) National Championship comes to Raleigh: More than 400 youth teams, from all over North America, competing nonstop on courts from 9 o’clock in the morning to past 10 at night.

Mark Thompson, the founder of the USBA, wouldn’t have it any other way—or really, in any other place.

“Raleigh is basketball heaven,” said Thompson, who is excited for the start of a three-year run in the Raleigh Convention Center. The tournament is projected to generate $11.1 million annually in direct visitor spending, and Thompson is hoping it’s the start of an extended relationship with Raleigh.

“I’ve worked with a lot of good people over the years,” Thompson said. “But this group in Raleigh, they just get it. All the time, they’re saying, ‘Thanks for being here.’ They’ll help with anything we need.”

The Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance (GRSA) is happy to get the opportunity to partner with the USBA.

2019 USBA National Championship Logo

“Raleigh is excited to welcome the USBA National Championship to downtown this summer,” said Tori Collins, director of GRSA. “The USBA embodies all that is good about basketball, and we are thrilled they will be playing in our convention center and we will get to experience it first-hand.”

The USBA had humble beginnings. Its first tournament, in Charlotte in 2005, had 12 teams. Thompson wondered when he saw the turnout if he would need to get back into coaching, where he worked the sidelines as a college assistant coach at Akron, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

“But we hung in, and now we’re one of the biggest youth basketball organizations in the country,” Thompson said.

The growth of the organization will be on full display later this month. Teams from more than half the U.S. states, Puerto Rico, Canada and one from the Netherlands will converge on downtown Raleigh for pool play and then elimination rounds. Last year’s USBA championship created quite a buzz in Charlotte, in part because of the appearance of LeBron James Jr. on the court for the North Coast (Ohio) Blue Chips—and his father as a spectator.

Lebron James at 2018 USBA Nationals

LeBron James Sr. and LeBron James Jr. at the 2018 USBA Nationals
Photo courtesy of the USBA

Thompson said the Blue Chips are back in the field this year, along with teams from organizations backed by NBA stars Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. That’s a far cry from the turnout for that first USBA event 14 years ago.

“There are going to be plenty of future college players and potentially NBA players,” Thompson said. “We didn’t see those kids back in 2005.”

The organization focused on boys’ tournaments at first and has expanded to sponsor girls’ tournaments as well. The USBA also holds clinics and camps, which to Thompson is a main reason the organization has grown. Former Duke assistant coach Chris Spatola, an ESPN and SEC Network analyst, and a host of former ACC head coaches, such as Les Robinson, the former coach and athletic director at North Carolina State University, are part of the USBA roster.

Dave Odom, the former coach at Wake Forest and South Carolina, will be part of a camp, held in the middle of the tournament in Raleigh. So will Bobby Cremins, the former coach at Georgia Tech.

“People may not know Mark Thompson, but they know Bobby Cremins,” Thompson said. “We don’t use these guys in name only. They’re out there working on the floor in our clinics. They lend immediate credibility.”

With that name recognition and hard work, the organization grew from hosting regional tournaments to expanding to a true national championship. Thompson expects the teams to embrace Raleigh the way he has.

Thompson has a daughter who plays volleyball, and he was a spectator for a tournament earlier this year at the convention center. Volleyball, incidentally, was the sport that started the multiple-court movement in the Raleigh Convention Center, thanks to an idea from Triangle Volleyball Club back in 2009.

“The layout of the whole event was tremendous,” he said. “The good thing, too, about Raleigh, you’ve got hotels and restaurants that you can walk to. Everything’s convenient.”

Also convenient for the teams is the chance to soak in the area’s basketball tradition. They will have a chance to visit the renovated Reynolds Coliseum and other famed basketball venues. Those opportunities are another reason Thompson liked Raleigh for the tournament, which had outgrown its initial home in Myrtle Beach.

“If you’re going to do a big-time basketball tournament, you might as well do it in Raleigh,” he said. “It is basketball country. We thought of it because of the basketball history, and once I began dealing with the people, it became very evident that’s where we wanted to be. The GRSA has been tremendous. We told them what we needed, and from day one, they have been very helpful and easy to work with.”

2014 Deep South Classic

Deep South Classic (basketball) and Triangle Volleyball Club events provided a blueprint for future multiple-court action at the Raleigh Convention Center