More than conference crowns and automatic bids to the big dance will be up for grabs when Mercer University hosts the Atlantic Sun basketball tournaments this week.
Macon merchants also could be winners, as 14 out-of-town men’s and women’s teams compete, along with Mercer, for the league championship and a ticket to the NCAA tournaments. From as far away as Nashville, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., they’ve come, and they’ve brought fans, bands, staff and even mascots with them.
The tournaments, which begin today and end Saturday, are expected to generate about 500 room bookings this week, according to the Macon-Bibb Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Hilton Garden Inn at Mercer is one of eight Macon hotels hosting teams. Friday, the hotel was referring calls from traveling tournament-goers to other Macon hotels.
“We’re not talking about one room, we’re getting requests for five, six, 10 rooms,” said Mamie Bush, the Hilton Garden Inn’s director of sales. “And then we have our normal business guests.”
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The tournament features 225 players, and it is expected to bring in 2,000 to 3,000 spectators each day and almost $60,000 in expenditures for the week, the CVB said.
“They buy gas. They buy snacks, drinks, eat out at local restaurants,” said Sherri Booker, the Atlantic Sun Conference senior associate commissioner for championships and sports administration.
Businesses in Mercer Village, the retail district on the campus end of College Hill Corridor, are reaching out to teams and fans, offering tournament specials and coupons.
Mercer Village is home to two restaurants, Ingleside Village Pizza and Francar’s Buffalo Wings, and a coffee shop, Jittery Joe’s. Its newest tenant, The Bike Shop, will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, with a bike give-away, to coincide with the tournament.
“We’re trying to lure them this way,” said Jessica Walden, communications director for the College Hill Alliance. “We expect big sales from the tournament.”
Though located off campus, the nearby Bear’s Den restaurant is expecting a boost, but it will rely on word-of-mounth advertising about its Southern cuisine. The restaurant usually does well whenever Mercer hosts games and events, owner Betty Marshall said.
“We had a girls basketball team in the other day from South Dakota.”
The restaurant is preparing for tournament crowds by upping its orders of food and supplies, Marshall said.
“That’s what I’m counting on. I’ve got some extra on hand just in case,” she said.
The conference basketball tournaments are the first hosted by Mercer, though it has hosted conference tourneys in other Atlantic Sun sports, Booker said.
The conference awards two-year bids, so Mercer will host next year’s tournaments as well.
“By the time you have everything in place, so many aspects are easier for two years,” said Booker.
The Atlantic Sun, which is headquartered in Macon, does not release the terms of hosting conference championships, Booker said, but financial guarantees by institutions are part of the bids. Mercer had several factors in its favor, including its University Center arena, she said. “It’s as good as anybody’s in the conference.”
Mercer also had “great support, from President (William) Underwood on down,” Booker said. “You’re never able to pull off an event like this without support from the top down.”
Also, Macon’s location is a plus and should boost out-of-town attendance. The majority of conference teams are from Tennessee and Florida.
“We have some teams whose fans travel better than others,” said Booker. “But everybody seems to be excited about it being in Macon, with it being in a central location.”
Parity among teams also has generated some added excitement.
“Everybody seems to be knocking each other off every week,” Booker said. “With it being tournament time, a lot of teams are thinking anything could happen.”
Bush, the Hilton Garden Inn sales director, hails from Charlotte, N.C., and was there when that city hosted the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, which features college basketball heavyweights such as Duke and North Carolina. Mercer hosting the A-Sun tournament is a big deal for Macon and for the university — and for basketball fans such as herself.
“It’s kind of nice to have this kind of basketball in Macon. This is what I grew up around. I’m such a devoted fan, and so are some of the people who work here.”
Bush’s hotel is hosting teams from Lipscomb and Belmont universities, not-so-friendly neighbors from Nashville.
“You know the Hatfields and McCoys? That is what they tell me it’s like. They’re big rivals.”
To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.