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Tix sales slow so far for hoops tourney

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State Rep. Bob Steinburg

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The “Battle in the Blue Ridge” basketball tournament that Currituck County paid a state lawmaker’s company $50,000 to help promote starts Friday, and so far a little more than 100 tickets have been sold for the event.

The three-day college basketball tournament, to be held in the US Cellular Center in Asheville, had sold 107 tickets and generated $2,134 in gross ticket sales as of Thursday, according to the venue’s general manager, Chris Corl.

The tournament is being organized by the WolfeStein Group, which is owned by state House Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan. In a phone call Monday, Steinburg said ticket sales for this kind of tournament are typically low, and the tournament’s value to Currituck is measured in advertising through coverage through ESPN, social media, promotion through the schools themselves, and other forms of exposure.

The tournament stirred controversy earlier this year, when it became widely known that Currituck officials had, in late 2017, approved $50,000 to Steinburg’s company to sponsor the event. Tourism officials reviewed the event and Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon signed off on it. That prompted critics, including some county commissioners, to question the appearances of the county doing business with an elected official, and whether county staff had been transparent enough in the matter.

Steinburg has adamantly denied any impropriety or quid pro quo, and did so again on Monday. The tournament is an extremely cost-effective way to promote the county, and analysis of the event’s “impressions” afterward will prove so, he said.

Steinburg also explained that this weekend’s tournament, in which no team is a home team, is considered a “multi-team event,” or MTE. Such tournaments rarely have large ticket sales, even when popular teams or big schools are playing, he said, adding WolfeStein had donated a lot of tickets to nonprofits and charities in the Asheville area.

Steinburg said the tournament may not profitable for his company, but it would be effective in promoting Currituck, citing coverage — although not live broadcasting, he clarified — from ESPN, and other sports promotion. He also said he has emphasized that any mention of the tournament must include “visitcurrituckOBX.com.”

Bobby Steinburg also emphasized that ticket sales are not a valid measure of interest in a multi-team event tournament. He also explained that WolfeStein had chosen to donate tickets, rather than focus on selling them, to promote Currituck and as an act of good will. The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, the Boys and Girls Club, and Big Brothers Big Sisters are a few examples of the groups receiving tickets, he said.

“We're going to have more people there than most MTEs,” he said.

However, Bobby Steinburg reiterated that the tournament's success, from Currituck's standpoint, lies in its mentions on ESPN and its website, and promotion through the schools.

Bobby Steinburg also said some of the criticisms of the event were from people who did not understand college basketball tournaments — including that it would be an easy or fast profit for the Steinburgs.

“Anyone who thinks this is a get-rich quick scheme is out of their minds,” he said, noting that just renting the venue and hiring officials will cost around $70,000.

Emails from Corl state the tournament is set to unfold as planned, featuring play from four universities’ teams: UNC-Wilmington, Arkansas State, Eastern Illinois, and Gardner-Webb. There will be two games each day, starting Friday with Gardner-Webb taking on Eastern Illinois at 5 p.m.

Emails also show that Steinburg’s son, Bobby Steinburg, has been organizing the tournament during Steinburg’s run for state Senate this year. Steinburg won that race on Nov. 6, defeating Democrat Cole Phelps in the newly drawn 1st Senate District.

Ticket sales of 107 may not seem like a sign of strong interest, however, Corl said that basketball is a “heavy ‘walk up’” sales event.

“I expect the majority of sales to occur at the door,” he said.

Each team will also receive dozens of complimentary tickets for teams to offer friends and family, based on emails from Bobby Steinburg provided to The Daily Advance in a records request.

Even with numerous donated or complimentary tickets, the event appears to have a way to go to fill the US Cellular Center. The venue’s capacity for basketball purposes is about 5,400, Corl reported.

Asked if he saw indications the tournament will be effective in promoting its sponsor, Corl responded, “that is an opinion and I prefer to stay out of the debate” of whether hosted events are effective for sponsors.

Online traffic is another indicator of interest. The tournament drew 262 unique page views in the last 30 days, Corl reported. The US Cellular Center’s home page has drawn almost 16,000 unique page views in that time, he also reported.

The tournament also has a Twitter page, which has 105 followers and has sent out 668 tweets so far, including several that acknowledge Currituck and other sponsors.

Currituck Tourism Director Tameron Kugler, who has said the tournament is a good tourism investment, did not respond to questions about the tournament on Monday. Currituck commissioners who could be reached for comment Monday offered only brief comment, owing to the tournament’s previous controversy.

Commissioner Bob White said the tournament will be worth the $50,000 spent, and said he also expects Kugler will provide a report after the event. The county is able to track online traffic and other indications of interest, he said.

Asked if she was satisfied with how the tournament is coming together, Commissioner Kitty Etheridge said “I don’t really have any comment,” adding that she hadn’t heard much about the tournament.

Commissioner Mike Hall, who expressed skepticism about the tournament and concern about the lack of information about the tourney before it was approved, said Monday that “it is what it is.” He wished the event well, given it’s attempting to promote Currituck.

Asked if he had been kept in the loop about the tournament, Hall said he got an update about it last week.

Some Currituck officials appear likely to attend the event. According to emails, Commissioner Paul Beaumont and tourism board member Mike Martine plan to attend. Neither could be reached for comment Monday. Beaumont has also been a critic of the tournament.

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