This year’s ACC Tournament marks the 11th time I’ve been to this spectacle. I’ve covered four SEC Tournaments, a Southern Conference Tournament and two Division II conference tournaments. I’ve even done around a dozen NCAA Tournaments, just for good measure.
And of all of them, the ACC Tournament is still my favorite. It’s the tournament that started conference tournaments nationally. There’s a reason why it’s considered the grandfather of all conference tournaments.
But for seven of the last eight years, not including this season, the ACC Tournament has been a shell of itself, and it all started with the first game of the first day in 2005, when it was held at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.
In that game, Maryland was a favorite over an upstart Clemson team. Maryland had bemoaned the fact for years that the schools in N.C. had an inherent advantage each tournament because it was routinely held in Charlotte or Greensboro, making it much easier for those on Tobacco Road to be in attendance.
Now, it was finally in the Terps’ neighborhood in downtown D.C.
And while Maryland was an No. 8 seed and Clemson a No. 9, the Terps were big favorites.
The arena was nearly full to capacity and 95% of the fans were cheering for Maryland. But something funny happened on the way to Maryland’s showdown with No. 1 UNC on Friday, it lost big, 84-72 to the Tigers.
And for the remainder of the tournament, because Maryland no longer was around, the crowd was sparse and barely filled half of the arena. It’s been that way ever since.
The following year in Greensboro, the crowd had dwindled. Even though fans from Boston College, Miami, Florida State and Clemson bought tickets, very few of them made the trip.
The worst of all time came in 2007, when it was held at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. For the first time since the 1950s, tickets were available at the ticket office at the arena on the first day of the tournament.
Nobody showed up and nobody in that town cared. If the residents don’t even care about their own professional baseball team that’s actually good, what makes you think they’d care about a bunch of teams from out of state in a sport nobody gives a second thought to.
Very poor planning on the ACC’s part, to say the least.
The one year it was held in Charlotte, in 2008, the arena was pretty much full the entire time. It was a solid showing.
The tournament returned to Greensboro the following year and the crowd turnout was horrendous. I remember talking to ACC Commissioner John Swofford on why he thought that was the case and he blamed it solely on the economy. That, to me, just didn’t hold water.
What he was essentially telling me was that there weren’t 22,000 people within a two-hour drive of Greensboro that couldn’t afford to come to the tournament. So, between Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Charlotte, Burlington, Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville, there wasn’t a total of 22,000 fans that could afford to come.
It wasn’t much better in 2010, when the tournament returned to Greensboro, and in 2011, it improved slightly. Last year in Atlanta wasn’t anything to write home about, either.
That marks seven of the last seven of the last eight years the crowd has been brutal, while at other tournaments like the Big 10 and Big East, tickets are very difficult to come by.
Most blame the lack of interest in the tournament on the expansion of the league, because fans buy the tickets for teams like Miami, Florida State and Boston College and then don’t show up and never sell their tickets to those that want to show.
Finally, though, it appears the cavalry is in full charge to save the day. Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville and Notre Dame are joining the league. Think about games like Duke-Syracuse, N.C. State-Notre Dame and Louisville-UNC. ACC expansion may have hurt the league, but now it looks to save it, even with Maryland bolting for the Big 10.
The other thing that the ACC needs to do is rotate the tournament between three cities: Greensboro, Charlotte and New York City. Hold it Greensboro because that’s the home of the ACC. Hold it in Charlotte because unlike Greensboro, the entire city embraces it and attendance will be great. Hold it in NYC because the excitement of the Big Apple and ESPN would blow it out big time. It’s the media capital of the world and all that free promotion to a market that’s rarely been exposed to the tournament would do nothing but help.
So, while the league has been down for quite a few years, that’s all about to change, and I for one, can’t wait to go watch the games.