JUMP FOR JOY: The Jumpman Invitational, first held last December at Spectrum Center, is the model for Ally Tipoff, a new women’s college basketball event. (Charlotte Sports Foundation)

Sports foundation expands beyond focus on football

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One of the biggest events in women’s college basketball for the 2023-24 season is coming to Spectrum Center, where the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets play.

On Nov. 9, Iowa and Virginia Tech will compete in the inaugural Ally Tipoff, showcasing two of the most dynamic players in the college game, the Hawkeyes’ Caitlin Clark and the Hokies’ Elizabeth Kitley, a two-time ACC Player of the Year.

Ten days out, ticket sales were strong with most of the lower bowl sold and roughly half of the upper bowl sold, according to the seating map on Ticketmaster.com, the arena’s primary ticketing site. Ticket prices run $40 to $150 a person.

Spectrum Center can fit about 19,000 for NBA games and up to 20,200 for college basketball. The setup for the Ally Tipoff reduces capacity to about 17,000, said officials with the Charlotte Sports Foundation, the group producing the event. Danny Morrison, the foundation’s executive director, said they hope to set a new single-game attendance record for a women’s college basketball game in North Carolina.

The matchup of two top 10 teams to kick off the regular season represents a coup for the nonprofit foundation under the direction of Morrison, the former Carolina Panthers team president and college athletic director.

It’s a perfect fit for the group’s mission to bring high profile sports events to Charlotte to generate tourism dollars and add to the quality of life in the Carolinas’ biggest market, he said.

The Duke’s Mayo Classic, a Labor Day weekend college football game, the ACC Football Championship and the postseason Duke’s Mayo Bowl, all held at Bank of America Stadium, are three events run by the foundation.

The Ally Tipoff, to be broadcast on ESPN2, provides the diversity the foundation was looking for to counterbalance the football-centric and men’s events taking place in Charlotte over the past decade, Morrison said.

At a time when women’s sports in general continues to grow, booking two of last season’s Final Four participants is as big as it gets in the college game, he said.

The 2023 Final Four drew an average of 6.5 million viewers, ESPN’s most-viewed Final Four on record. LSU beat Iowa in the championship game after defeating Virginia Tech in the semifinals.

“We were intrigued watching the Women’s Final Four and the tournament as a whole, and how it galvanized the interest of America,” Morrison said. “We wondered if we could get Iowa to come to Charlotte and play another Final Four team. There were two Final Four teams in our region, with South Carolina and Virginia Tech, and South Carolina had already committed to playing in Paris (on Nov. 6) against Notre Dame.”

To make it happen in Charlotte, the foundation wasted no time putting the event together immediately after the Final Four concluded in early April.

Foundation officials contacted Ally Financial Services, which already holds title sponsorship of the ACC women’s basketball and soccer tournaments, and which has a major presence in Charlotte, to see if they had interest in becoming the title partner for the Tipoff. Ally, didn’t waste time, either, confirming their financial commitment within 24 hours, Morrison said.

Next came contacting Iowa and Virginia Tech, whose coaches Lisa Bluder and Kenny Brooks, put together their respective schedules. Both said yes, and the foundation was off to the races, structuring the remaining economics of the agreement. Both schools receive $150,000 guarantees, as reported by the Charlotte Business Journal, which are on par with some fees in the men’s game, Morrison said.

Iowa also receives a $50,000 travel stipend to cover air travel expenses. Virginia Tech is traveling by  bus from Blacksburg, Virginia, a 2.5 hour drive to Charlotte, and did not get a stipend.

Both schools are responsible for covering the cost of hotel rooms and meals, Morrison said.

ALLIES: A rendering shows the custom court Praters produced for the inaugural Ally Tipoff at Spectrum Center. (Charlotte Sports Foundation)

As the deal progressed, basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli and Susan O’Malley, former president of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, were both helpful in their support of the event, Morrison said. O’Malley and Morrison are both instructors at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Sport and Entertainment Management, and live a block and a half from each other in Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

Officials are treating the Ally Tipoff at the same elite level as the Jumpman Invitational, a combined men’s and women’s hoops event over two days featuring North Carolina, Michigan, Florida and Oklahoma.

Jumpman enters the second year of a three-year deal at Spectrum Center. This year’s dates are Dec. 19-20. The four schools all have apparel deals with Jordan Brand, a partnership between Nike and NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, who owns a minority stake in the Hornets.

Last year, the foundation purchased a customized court for the Jumpman Invitational, produced by Praters Flooring. Those event-specific hardwood surfaces, such as the floor made for the Final Four, typically run six figures. Praters stores the Jumpman court for the foundation.

As it stands now, there’s no commitment for the Ally Tipoff beyond this year, Morrison said. The foundation rented a custom court from Praters for the event that prominently features the purple Ally brand.

“It’s not six figures, but it’s up there,” Morrison said, without disclosing the rental cost.

“We’ve put the same attention to detail and emphasis on quality for this event as we do Jumpman,” he said. “It takes resources and you’ve got to have a supportive title partner. Ticket prices are going to be higher than you see on campus, because you’re playing in an NBA arena and paying rent. That’s a positive, not a negative; it confirms the interest and demand for women’s basketball.”

The demand for all things Caitlin Clark continues to be red-hot. In early October, Clark signed a name, image and likeness deal with State Farm insurance, the first college athlete to do so. In addition to capturing multiple player of the year awards last season, in September, Clark won the AAU’s prestigious James E. Sullivan Award, presented to the most outstanding athlete at the college and Olympic level.

Iowa, driven by Clark’s prowess on the hardwood and her immense popularity off the court, has already set one attendance record this fall.

On Oct. 15, the Big Ten school drew 55,646 people to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City for an outdoor exhibition against DePaul. The previous record crowd for a women’s game, according to the NCAA, was 29,619 for the 2002 Women’s Final Four championship game between Oklahoma and Connecticut at the Alamodome.

“There’s not a more high-profile college athlete, men or women, than Caitlin Clark right now; she’s the Steph Curry of the women’s game,” Morrison said. “Overall, women’s sports has now come to the place where there are resources to invest in guarantees and the experience and look of the event. People are willing to pay.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.