CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Katherine Peralta | The Charlotte Observer) - If you're headed to the CIAA basketball championship games Saturday, the Spectrum Center will feel a little smaller than it has in the past.
For the first time this year, organizers of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association's marquee basketball tournament are roping off sections of the arena, which has a capacity of nearly 18,000.
The new capacity of about 10,700 will help make it a "more intimate venue," according to CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams.
Ticket and hotel demand was softer last year for Charlotte's largest annual event, now in its 13th year here. Organizers hope that the weaker numbers were just an aberration – and that CIAA fans aren't getting tired of Charlotte.
Event organizers will look closely at this year's numbers as they begin talks this summer about whether to renew the tournament's contract with Charlotte, which runs through 2020.
The CRVA agreed in 2014 to increase its payment to the CIAA from $1 million to $1.4 million annually, as well as other increased financial benefits.
"There's a spirit among us and the community that we'd like to see it continue in Charlotte, and I think the CIAA shares that. It's been the most successful in its history in Charlotte versus the other cities it's been in," Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO Tom Murray said.
Every year after the tournament, the CRVA, the city's tourism arm, conducts online surveys to gauge sentiment among fans. Of the 194 people surveyed, those who didn't attend cited steep hotel prices, other commitments and House Bill 2 as their primary deterrents.
North Carolina's HB2, which limited legal restrictions for LGBT individuals, was signed into law by former Gov. Pat McCrory in March 2016, then repealed by current Gov. Roy Cooper in late March 2017. The controversial HB2 prompted other businesses and events to relocate from North Carolina, including the NBA, which opted not to hold its 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte.
The CIAA, the country's oldest African-American sports conference, relocated eight out of 10 sports championships in 2017 from the state but decided to keep its basketball tournament in Charlotte.
Another possible deterrent for fans is the violence that has for years marred events held during the CIAA week.
The most recent incident was a shooting early Thursday at an unsanctioned CIAA event at the Palace Charlotte nightclub uptown, which left one man injured. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police aren't planning any significant changes in staffing or strategy for this year's tournament, Capt. Norman Garnes told the Observer.
Though it's too soon to know what turnout will be this year among fans, the unofficial CIAA parties this year are still expected to be star-studded events like they have been in years past, with appearances from celebrities like Cardi B, Lil Wayne, Ludacris and Odell Beckham Jr.
According to the CIAA, games in 2016 had an average attendance of 14,468 for the Tuesday-Saturday basketball tournament. Last year, the average was 13,958, a 3.5 percent decline from the prior year.
The organization said it could not provide figures for years before 2016.
The tournament's economic impact on the region declined last year, too.
Last year the tournament had a total economic impact of $47.4 million, including $27 million in direct spending. That total was down from 2016's economic impact of $57.4 million.
Murray said hotel rates were relatively flat going into last year's tournament. Still, the investment can be costly for fans who opt to stay all week, as some participating schools do.
The average length of each stay for CIAA attendees is 3.9 days, according to the CRVA. Of those, 78.4 percent are from outside of Mecklenburg County.
Hotel costs "will always be a piece of the puzzle," McWilliams said. This year, the CIAA has 1,100 room nights reserved in 24 area hotels.
Johnson C. Smith University juniors Deion Caldwell, Ruben Allen and Tremell Parker were uptown Thursday for the CIAA Career Expo at the Convention Center. They cited the multitude of non-basketball events during the week as a good reason the CIAA should remain in Charlotte.
"Yes, things like hotels and tickets are overpriced here, but that's not going to stop you from having a good time, even if you don't go to the games," Allen said. "Charlotte's a great place to be."
Looking ahead, the CIAA could opt to move its annual basketball tournament closer to its other member schools in Maryland, Pennsylvania or Virginia, McWilliams said. The CIAA, however, has close ties to North Carolina.
When it announced it would renew its contract with Charlotte for six more years in 2014, the association also said it would relocate its headquarters here from Hampton, Va. Furthermore, eight of the CIAA's 12 member schools are located in North Carolina.