- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

The ACC men’s basketball tournament is always one of the toughest tickets in sports, but response to this year’s event in Tampa, Fla., has been decidedly lukewarm.

Several schools in the ACC, particularly those in North Carolina, report they have been forced to expand the pool of donors eligible to buy tickets because many fans have been unwilling to make the trip south.

“We’ve got a lot of people excited, but we’re not seeing the demand for tickets we usually have,” said Bobby Purcell, executive director of the Wolfpack Club at N.C. State, who tried in vain to organize a charter flight for fans in the Raleigh area. “The ACC tournament is a big thing, whether we’re in first place or last place. But we have some older donors who don’t want to make the trip. It’s nothing but the distance.”

This year’s tournament, to be held at St. Pete Times Forum, is seen as a nod to Florida State and Miami, which have never seen the event held in their home state. It marks only the ninth time the 53-year-old event has been held outside North Carolina, the home base of four conference schools. Greensboro Coliseum has played host to three of the last four tournaments, and Charlotte Coliseum was the site in 2002.

The tournament was held at Verizon Center in 2005 with few complaints, but Tampa is proving to be a tougher sell.

“We’re going further down our list, and it’s something we anticipated,” said Jack Winters, director of Iron Dukes, the athletic foundation at Duke. “Distance is a factor. We’re used to having it in Greensboro or Charlotte, and your fans get accustomed to that. The thought of getting on a plane is a deterrent.”

Officials at Wake Forest and Virginia also have seen decreased interest from donors. Interest at Wake Forest is particularly slow because many fans recently spent money on tickets to see the Demon Deacons’ football team in the ACC Championship in Jacksonville, Fla., and in the Orange Bowl in Miami.

Maryland officials, meanwhile, said interest in tickets is higher than in recent years when the tournament was held in North Carolina.

The tournament has not held a public sale of tickets since 1966. Tickets are instead sold by ACC member schools to donors, who earn the right to buy tickets based on their length of membership and level of giving. At most schools, only the most senior and generous donors are permitted to buy tickets.

The lack of interest from those top donors this year is particularly striking because recent conference expansion has meant schools have fewer tickets to distribute than in years past. Virginia Tech and Miami, who joined the conference in 2004, now receive a full allotment of about 1,700 tickets. Boston College, which joined the ACC in 2005, receives a roughly two-thirds share.

It’s still unlikely tickets will be sold to the general public in the form of a traditional sale. Tournament organizers are offering fans the chance to obtain unwanted tickets through a lottery system, but so far only a few hundred tickets have been made available.

Moreover, tickets are now being made available to less wealthy donors. At N.C. State, every Wolfpack Club member was offered the chance to buy tickets, and Duke is offering tickets to every donor in Florida.

“There’s definitely another side of the coin here,” Winters said. “It’s especially neat when you can offer tickets to other folks who might not have been able to go in the past.”

But for some schools, the idea of holding the ACC tournament outside North Carolina just feels a little off.

“There’s no one against it going to Tampa, but the tradition of it is that has almost always been in North Carolina,” Purcell said. “Selfishly, we feel that way. Our fans probably prefer Greensboro or Charlotte.”

For Tampa officials, the arrival of the tournament in their city is the culmination of a 15-year campaign. The city has played host to the Final Four, the Super Bowl and several other major sporting events but never a tournament with 12 teams over four days.

“This is the gold star, the one thing where there’s nothing to even compare it to,” said Jeff Adams, an attorney and chairman of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “I can tell you that there’s an argument to be made that this is the biggest event we’ve had in the Tampa Bay area in a lot of different ways.”

And while some ACC coaches — including Miami’s Frank Haith — claim an affinity for the state of North Carolina, the location of the tournament might become irrelevant once the ball hits the floor.

“Obviously, I grew up in ACC country, and there’s nothing like Greensboro or Charlotte,” said Haith, a former Wake Forest assistant. “Hopefully, we’ll have some people go over. I think fans will come — ACC basketball fans will go anywhere.”

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