The Washington Times - June 17, 2009, 12:09PM

The ACC title game is on the move – into prime time and off free TV.

Yes, the Dec. 5 game is heading to ESPN for an 8 p.m. kickoff.

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Not that, realistically, many people are too interested in the proceedings.

As Exhibit A, I refer everyone to what my friend the Official Dot-Com Diva had to say about 24 hours after last year’s game in Tampa, Fla.:

The ACC isn’t ready for prime time. If there were more than 20,000 people at the ACC Championship Game, I’d be surprised. Once again, there were thousands of empty seats, and it came on a day where the SEC Championship Game couldn’t have provided any more drama or entertainment. If the ACC wants to reach that level, two things need to happen: First, the conference needs to step up its play and have teams like Florida State and Miami contending for more than just an ACC title. And second, ACC officials need to move this game to Charlotte and keep it there. In an economic time where money is scarce, and families are forced to choose between a bowl game or a title game, the latter needs to be within driving distance. The ACC is fortunate enough to have a centrally-located fan base and should take advantage of it. The scene in Jacksonville last year was an embarrassment to the league, and this year in Tampa wasn’t any better.

I can’t personally speak to the 2008 game – I was at a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia covering Army-Navy that afternoon – but I sure was in Jacksonville the year before.

Let’s just say the lasting memory of that trip was TEAL seats. Lots and lots of TEAL seats.

That and the encounter with a T-shirt vendor who had an innocent question when I chortled at a Virginia Tech shirt that read “Beating Virginia never Grohs old.”

His query: “Who’s Groh?”

The ACC doesn’t want to hear this, but the Dot-Com Diva is absolutely right. The ACC’s nascent title game – and to be perfectly fair to the conference, it is trying to establish a football festival in a league full of fans who by early December traditionally have moved on to dissecting how basketball coaches will whittle down their rotations – is not a prime-time event on the college football calendar, even if it will be played under the lights this December.

(Of course, if the lights are off, you won’t be able to see all the empty seats. It’s a thought).

There are only a handful of truly rabid fan bases in the conference. Boston College, which has played in the last two title games, isn’t one of them. Georgia Tech under its previous coach wasn’t one of them when it made an appearance in 2006 (times have changed a bit since then). There isn’t a whole that can be done about that other than trying to gradually change things.

Geography, quality of play, the matchup, the game’s big-picture meaning – all of these things matter a whole lot more than when a game is played and who televises it.

The move to Charlotte in 2010 will help. A potential upswing for Florida State will help.

The chance Virginia Tech maybepossibly could be a top-five team if it doesn’t get swallowed up by early games against Alabama and Nebraska would help. Not having a team in the title game whose entire fanbase can almost carpool together from one end of the Atlantic seaboard to another would help.

(OK, that’s a little harsh. But can anyone seriously argue that Clemson or Florida State wouldn’t bring a lot more fans to a conference title game than BC?)

So, yes, the title game is back in prime time. Yes, it’s heading to cable, joining a slightly more storied cousin (the Rose Bowl) in events that have shifted from the Alphabet Network to the Four-Letter Network this month.

It’s clear the ACC really wants its title game to be a big deal. It has good people working for months at a clip to produce a memorable show. It’s going to trumpet anything and everything related to the game, be it television deals or youth events or ticket sales. Well, maybe not ticket sales.

It can do that as much as it wants, but everything still comes down to what sort of product it can produce and where it can produce it. Despite expansion, the ACC is still a Carolina-centric league. And despite all the parity in the conference, its resident football powerhouses remain the same.

The formula’s pretty simple. For good or for ill, the ACC needs some help on the field to make its title game must-see TV, regardless of what time it begins or who happens to televise it.

Patrick Stevens