What if you gave an arena and nobody came? It looks like UNC Asheville and in particular AD Janet Cone are about to find out.
Readers of this blog likely know the situation: the Asheville Citizen-Times reported Monday that UNC Asheville had waived the right to host the Big South tournament title game in March. According to Ms. Cone, the Bulldogs would be unable to use Kimmel Arena due to the Southern Conference Women’s Basketball tournament taking place that weekend. Additionally, Ms. Cone and Chancellor Anne Ponder decided to forego use of the Justice Center. “After playing home games at Kimmel all season, we just didn’t think it would be the right thing to play the championship game in Justice, so we would pass on hosting the championship,” Cone said. According to the Citizen Times, this decision was made by University officials (aka Ms. Cone and Chancellor Ponder), not the Big South Conference. “We talked about the commitment they had with the city and the (SoCon) and the various scenarios, and UNC Asheville made the choice to waive the right to host the championship game,” said Kyle Kallander, Big South Conference Commissioner, adding that “It was their decision, and we’ll leave it at that.”
On Tuesday, UNC Asheville released a statement which contradicted Monday’s reporting. According to the statement, the decision to not host the final game in the Justice Center was made at the request of the Big South Conference.
At least four issues arise here:
I. The decision to waive the right to host the conference championship game in Kimmel Arena;
II. The decision to waive the right to host the conference championship game in Asheville;
III. The public relations handling of the first two items; and
IV. The contradictory, on-the-record statements made by university officials this week.
The Athletics Department, led by Ms. Cone, made a grave error by giving up the right to hold the Big South Men’s championship game in negotiations with the Southern Conference. This error manifests itself in 1) the disloyalty and condescension shown to the Men’s Basketball team; and 2) the projected lost revenue and publicity as a result of not hosting the championship.
Ms. Cone and Chancellor Ponder have a duty to advance the cause of UNC Asheville and the student body. Putting another conference tournament ahead of your own, by definition, constitutes a breach of this duty. Specifically, the failure to ensure that UNC Asheville could retain use of Kimmel Arena, the crown jewel of the UNC Asheville campus, for use by the Men’s Basketball team is a slap in the face to the players, coaches, families, students, alumni, and fans who have supported this team over the years. It says, in essence, that we don’t matter, at least not as much as the women’s basketball teams of another conference. It flabbergasts me that, during negotiations with the City of Asheville and the Southern Conference, UNC Asheville did not secure the right to play Big South tournament games in Kimmel Arena during each of the three years that the Southern Conference women’s tournament will be held at Kimmel Arena. It was reasonably foreseeable that the men’s team would be regular season champions in one of these three years. Did Ms. Cone not anticipate that the dates might conflict? Although it might pose a bit of a logistical challenge, there is no reason to think that some of the women’s games could be scheduled around the Big South games, or that some of the women’s games could be played in the Justice Center or the Asheville Civic Center. According to the statement released by the university, the format of the Big South Tournament was “up in the air” at the time of negotiations. It’s understandable that Ms. Cone might have thought that the conference might switch to a neutral-site format at some point. However, when the contract was negotiated, the policy of the Big South conference had not changed. Why would one negotiate a contract based on a hypothetical future possibility than the concrete policy of the present day? It is gross incompetence.
With no disrespect intended to women’s basketball or the student-athletes involved in women’s basketball, the amount of attendees for the opening round southern conference women’s tournament will be far less than those who would attend a Big South tournament final featuring UNC Asheville, the “home” team. In the 2011 Southern Conference tournament, the championship game (between Wofford and Appalachian State) drew less than 1,000 people (991 to be exact). While this number might increase due to the fact that the tournament is in Asheville rather than Chattanooga (and therefore in closer proximity to Southern Conference Schools) this number would not likely increase by much. In contrast, the 2011 final game between UNC Asheville and Coastal Carolina was completely sold out, with students lining up outside the arena doors for a chance to get in. The championship game is also broadcast on national television, providing additional opportunity to showcase the campus and the university. In contrast, the opening round of the women’s tournament will not be broadcast on national television, costing the University the opportunity for the aforementioned publicity and recognition. UNC Asheville would not benefit as greatly from merchandise or concession sales at the game, nor will the community benefit from fans and alumni traveling to Asheville to watch the game.
In caving to the demands of another conference with whom UNC Asheville has no relationship, Ms. Cone and UNC Asheville have put the needs of others ahead of the needs of their student-athletes and employees without any discernible benefit to the university.
As previously stated, it was reasonably foreseeable that during the three years Kimmel Arena hosted the Southern Conference tournament, a conflict might result from the UNC Asheville men’s team winning the regular season and securing home-court advantage during the Big South Tournament. The Athletics Department, led by Ms. Cone, made a second grave error by not securing the right to have the Big South championship game played in the Justice Center or at another local venue where UNC Asheville fans could have home-court advantage.
Indeed, this was initially the plan. According to the Citizen-Times, Ms. Cone initially stated that the tournament would be played in the Justice Center if there was a conflict. This sudden change of tune is disheartening and again represents a lack of loyalty to the UNC Asheville community. The Big South Conference, even if it made the request to not use the justice center cannot be blamed for doing so: if a university has already ceded use of its primary facility, they obviously don’t care that much about having a final game played there and wouldn’t mind if it were played somewhere else.
III & IV.
Ms. Cone and UNC Asheville have made the problem worse by grossly mismanaging the handling of this story. One of the first rules of running an organization is that the process never needs to be the story. If you’re the President, you want to tell the country about the results of your jobs plan or economic stimulus, not the painful political process or drama occurring behind the scenes. If such a scandal occurs, you want to get out in front of the story and make sure that controversy is minimized by demonstrating that you are in control of the situation and, essentially, know what you’re doing. Ms. Cone has failed categorically in this regard. The selection of Asheville (and Kimmel Arena) to host the SoCon tournament was announced in June, 2010. the University has had two years to prepare for this probable scenario and yet failed to do so. By all accounts this is a PR disaster and the University now has to face the onslaught of outraged fans and supporters, including myself. Better handling of the situation would have minimized damage.
Did Janet Cone lie?
As Keith Jarrett put it this morning, the Kimmel Controversy is “a tale of two stories.” The first, put forth on the record by Ms. Cone on Monday, attests that the decision not to host games in Asheville was made by Ms. Cone and Chancellor Ponder. The statement released by the university on Tuesday stated that the decision was made by the Big South Conference.
Only one of these stories can be true, necessitating that the other is false. Three possible scenarios exist:
1. Monday’s statement was a classic case of “creating a scandal by telling the truth,” and Tuesday’s statement is damage control intended to shift blame from UNC Asheville to the Conference.
2. Monday’s statement by Cone was inaccurate or untruthful, and Tuesday’s statement was intended to tell the truth.
3. Both Monday and Tuesday’s statements are half-truths; Ms. Cone and UNC Asheville waived their right to play at the Justice Center by choosing to allow the Southern Conference to play games in Kimmel.
Any of the three options are disheartening and misleading. Cone needs to, at the very least, apologize for her handling of the situation. She also should apologize to the university community for ceding the right to play a conference championship game on our home court per Big South policy. Further, Cone’s mishandling of both the agreement with the Southern Conference and the dual statements regarding the position of the Big South conference call into question her competence. A university investigation needs to take place, headed by the Board of Trustees or a designated committee, to determine any wrongdoing by Ms. Cone and, if necessary, take disciplinary action including her removal from the position of Athletic Director.
This season started off with a bang at Kimmel Arena. It’s a severe disappointment that the season will not end that way.