The ACC Championship Game will never win
Column by Todd Wickersty
I am from Jacksonville. I am a Hokie. Please move the damn game to Charlotte, but don’t be fooled. The ACC Championship Game will still have problems.
I was in Jacksonville the week leading up to the game, and left for home (C’ville) the day before the game. So, count me as the many nonsupporters. I did get to consume, firsthand, many opinions about the game and its future, though.
First off, the problem is not the city of Jacksonville. Of course, you’d expect me to write that. I was born and raised there. The ACC gambled on the fact the FSU would be a consistent participant in the first few years of the game. A good bet, but the ACC ended up on the losing end. The only sellout was the first game when a five-loss FSU team and Virginia Tech played in the inaugural game. Imagine if this was 1998 or 1999 FSU. Tickets would have been going for $300 apiece outside the gates.
I’ve heard and read that the ACC was banking on FSU-Miami. I don’t believe the second part of that equation. Miami is one of the poorest traveling acts in football. I think they were banking on FSU vs. [Insert any Coastal Division team], Clemson-Virginia Tech, or worst-case Clemson-Georgia Tech.
Why these teams? Alumni/Fan Support and Close proximity to the championship site.
Growing up in Jacksonville (or Actionthrill, as I like to call it) during the ’70s and ’80s, I eagerly awaited the Gator Bowl game because that and the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party were the only big games in town. There was no NFL until 1995. I attended nine Gator Bowl games from 1983 to 2002. Besides Florida, FSU, and Georgia, I always expected a big crowd when Clemson and West Virginia came to town. They painted the town orange and purple or black and yellow. In fact, do you know what Gator Bowl game holds the all-time attendance record? You guessed it – Clemson/WVU in 1989. Almost 30,000 more fans attended that game than this year’s ACC Championship.
The ACC has two major problems when it comes to this game:
1. It is not a football conference, and only few ACC fan bases have SEC-like football passion.
2. The league is too damn spread out.
There are three football programs that have strong fan support in the ACC: Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech. If you look at recent Gator Bowl history (1970-present), Clemson has played in six Gator Bowls. Their games rank in all-time attendance #1 (1989), #6 (1986), #12 (1977), #15 (1978, the Woody Hayes game – see the video below), #23 (2001), and #27 (1996). Only the 2001 and 1996 games sold less than 70,000 tickets. Why? Their opponent. Clemson played (and crushed) Syracuse in 1996. With the exception of Penn State, the Northeast still doesn’t and never will care about college football. In 2001, Clemson played Virginia Tech. Surprised? I’m not. This was Tech’s third visit to the Gator Bowl in seven years, the year after they played in the BCS national championship. Tech fans were spoiled and not excited about another trip to Actionthrill.
Virginia Tech has played in the Gator Bowl five times. When you include the two ACC Championship games, Tech fans have been asked to visit Actionthrill seven times in the last 11 years. I bet you every Virginia Tech supporter has been to at least one of these games. Point being that we have all been to Jacksonville, and would prefer to visit other locations. Invite us back in 10 years, and you’ll see some excitement over the River City. Why do you think the Gator Bowl keeps asking Tech back though? Every game, but two, has had an attendance of greater than 62,000. The 2002 Gator Bowl game against FSU and the 2005 Championship game against FSU are the highest ranking Jacksonville games that Tech has played in.
Analyzing attendance of Florida State at the Gator Bowl is plain dumb. We all know they were good turnouts.
Looking at the rest of the Gator Bowl games that had greater than 70,000 in attendance, only Maryland, N.C. State, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech were participants. All you have to do though is look at their opponents to explain why. Maryland played West Virginia in 2004, ranking eighth on the all-time list. N.C. State and Georgia Tech each played Notre Dame. Nuff ‘ced. Carolina has three appearances above 70,000: against Georgia, Arkansas, and Michigan – traditional college football powers.
The conference just does not consistently travel well. Boston College, Miami, and Wake Forest fans are horrible. Wake is at a true disadvantage though. The small size of their alumni base does not give them a chance. Miami’s 2000 game against Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl was attended by 43,416. It’s a six-hour drive from Miami to Jacksonville, and from Atlanta to Jacksonville. The same amount of time it takes to drive from Washington D.C. to Charlotte. 43,416 is downright embarrassing.
Virginia has a big test this New Year’s Day. I am very curious to see what type of turnout the Gator Bowl will get from the Hoos and Red Raiders. I think Jacksonville will be pleasantly surprised. Al Groh has been trying to revamp the image and participation of the Wahoo Nation. This is their biggest opportunity in the Groh regime to show what they are made of, and I think they will travel well (this time). But, if they end up in Orlando next year for the Champs Sports Bowl, don’t expect to see more than 5,000 fans. They just aren’t consistent.
I don’t understand North Carolina. When you just look at the Gator Bowl attendance records, their games are all over the map. How can the 1997 game against WVU and the 1998 game (when a Mac Brown coached #5 Carolina team thumped VT) bring in less than 55,000 fans each, but the 1979 and 1981 games that Carolina played in attract over 70,000 fans? I think the answer has to do with the Gator Bowl itself. Back in the ’70s, the Gator Bowl was the fifth biggest bowl behind the majors of that era (Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Cotton). Then, the Fiesta and Citrus Bowl came around and knocked the Gator Bowl from its perch, and it has been stuck with crappy conference alignments since the late ’80s. It was a much more attractive game in the ’70s and ’80s compared to now. Get rid of the Big East and Big 12. Please go back to the SEC and set up a new SEC-ACC matchup. I don’t care if its the eighth-place SEC. That’s better then the Big East, but I digress.
I’m surprised that Georgia Tech doesn’t travel better. I already listed the 2000 Gator Bowl numbers, but there was also the poor turnout last year when Georgia Tech had a chance to win the ACC Championship. With such a rich football tradition, can Yellow Jacket fans explain why your support is mediocre?
Maryland and N.C. State seem to travel well, but I am not ready to put them in the upper echelon with FSU, Virginia Tech, and Clemson. I do think though that with some consistent success, both of these schools would join the ranks of the Noles, Hokies, and Tigers.
Then there is Duke.
Moving on … to reason #2 – the close proximity of the participants. Moving to Charlotte is a no-brainer. Why would Tampa be any better than Jacksonville? It would be worse! Student support would drop significantly because they ROAD TRIP! I don’t understand this columnist’s point that Jax is difficult to get to by plane. Hmm, let’s see, I can get a direct flight to Actionthrill from DC, Norfolk, Richmond, Boston, Raleigh/Durham, Charlotte, Atlanta, Tallahassee, and Miami. Whatever.
Don’t rotate the game either, Mr. Swafford. You are playing Russian Roulette if you do that. I’m sure that Tampa would love to see a Maryland-UVa., or who am I kidding, a repeat of this year’s matchup in 2009.
Charlotte is where this game should be, but it does not guarantee success. It only increases the chances for success. What if there is a BC-Miami matchup next year in Charlotte? Can you say 25,000 in attendance? Boston and Miami are just too far from Charlotte, and when you have one week, two at best, to plan, flights are too expensive for the average fan. This is another reason why the SEC Championship game is so successful.
Look at the distances between the SEC schools and Atlanta, and the ACC schools and Jacksonville, and then Charlotte.
Check out the top four rows in green. This is the reason why the game should move to Charlotte, but you knew that. Four of the ACC’s schools are in the state of North Carolina. It’s the bottom three rows in red that support my reason why it will never succeed on a consistent basis like the SEC Championship game. Compare the ACC town to Charlotte column with the SEC town to Atlanta column. Worst case scenario from a distance standpoint for the SEC would be Arkansas v. Kentucky. For the ACC, it would be BC versus Miami. The SEC game would sell out due to reason #1, and you already know my prediction for the BC/Miami matchup. The ACC almost had their worst possible matchup (from a distance standpoint) this year if UVa. had won the Coastal.
Of all the opinions I heard or read last week, I agree the most with Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union. Frenette writes, “… It’s time for Jacksonville to walk away from a losing business proposition and give another city a shot at hosting the game.” and “Next year, it likely will be Charlotte’s turn to try and pack Bank of America Stadium (73,298). Lots of luck if it must depend on fan bases from Wake Forest, Georgia Tech or Boston College to fill the place,” and finally, “If Clemson or FSU isn’t in the title game, along with Virginia Tech or North Carolina from the Coastal Division, then this event is going to struggle at the box office.”
The ACC made a mistake by placing the game in Jacksonville, and an even bigger mistake by believing that a championship game would be wildly successful on a consistent basis. If they wanted to achieve that, they should have invited West Virginia to join the conference instead of BC.
Todd Wickersty is the editor of TechHoops.com.