Just days before the NCAA sidelined March Madness, Greenville’s hotels, bars and restaurants were looking forward to a full-court press of wallet-wielding crowds flocking to the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. Like other such marquee events, the tourney looked to be another easy layup for merchants to net hefty revenues.
Were it not for COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdown of public spaces, the games’ economic impact would again have scored big points for downtown businesses, according to the city’s #yeahTHATgreenville office that keeps score of such things.
Take the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball games held just two weeks before at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. The event hauled in some $2.25 million, according to David Montgomery, vice president of sales at VisitGreenvilleSC.
Talk about tipping the scales, here’s an even bigger fish: The 2018 Bassmaster Classic reeled in $11.5 million, he said, noting that while the women’s tourney played from March 4-8, the Bassmaster event ran eight days and jammed The Well, as well as a trade show at the TD Convention Center (now the Greenville Convention Center).
By comparison, he said, 2017’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament lured the likes of such fan magnets Duke, South Carolina and North Carolina, the latter two of which moved onto the Final Four.
“We were a pretty good launching pad for all those schools,” he said, adding that their marquee status also boosted attendance and opened wallets — to the tune of $3.3 million.
Then the coronavirus epidemic showed up, putting an end to the March 24-29 women’s tournament.
Up until the NCAA’s nationwide March Madness cancellations, bookings had been brisk at Residence Inn by Marriott Greenville Downtown and SpringHill Suites by Marriott Greenville Downtown, according to Jonathan Brashier, the general manager of the dual-branded properties that served as the host destination for the SEC event. Moments after the NCAA announcement, he texted: “We are allowing cancellations with no penalty.”
Suzanne Coe, sole owner of Connolly’s Irish Pub just off Main Street, was busy enough planning for St. Patrick’s Day, also a cash-green machine. At the same time, she said she was keeping an eye on the oncoming pandemic.
March is usually when the madness begins there, she said, because people have paid off their holiday credit-card bills and New Year’s temperance resolutions have dried up.
“Things change in just a day,” she said, with some omniscience and, at the time, little optimism.
Connolly’s prides itself on its location, along with the fact that, at 23, the pub now bills itself as the oldest bar downtown. “We’re an original, old, traditional drinking place.”
At the same time, though, she said that while major sporting events and concerts add plenty to other businesses’ coffers, many tend to draw families or, at least, soberer types.
“The NCAA crowd doesn’t appear to be as hard-drinking as, like, a Super Bowl crowd would be, so we don’t see an unbelievable crush,” she said, “but we would see a little bit of an uptick when there’s a big game like that here.”
Likewise, Bill Smith, who’s known as “den mother” at the iconoclastically irreverent Café and Then Some, doesn’t see as much of a bump as some of his merchant neighbors do. That’s because folks are coming to see another event, while others know downtown will be packed.
“Usually big events at The Well affect us in the opposite direction because parking becomes scarce and people hip enough to know that it’s actually going on downtown and who are not going to the event will avoid coming out,” he said.
Although Cafe and Then Some does enjoy the city’s rising tourist trade, he said, “If you’re coming to Greenville for a sporting event or a concert, you’re probably not going to take the time to do something that’s an entire evening. You might go somewhere for a quick bite to eat, but you’d be less likely to see us or go to an event at the Peace Center.”
That’s where downtown restaurants such as Trio: A Brick Oven Café would, on any other normal day, fill the bill on Main Street.
The eatery in the heart of downtown, open until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, typically generates revenues between $15,000 and $20,000 on an average weekend. The SEC tourney scored an additional $6,000 over a similar time frame, according to general manager Brian Pittman.
“We enjoy it,” he said of the big-time basketball events and shows. “We love that we’re able to prepare for it. We love the fact that we get to meet new people, and it brings a lot of business into town.”
The restaurant even sees return business from out-of-town visitors, who often dine there more than once when they’re in town, he said.
Giving kudos to the arena, he added, “The Well changing and upgrading and bringing a lot of big names and big concerts and sporting events has really helped a lot.”