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Jacobs: ACC baseball gravitates toward Durham

By Barry Jacobs - correspondent

Public investment in sports arenas is often promoted as an economic development tool, with arguable results. But there’s little debate when it comes to the success of Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Built in the mid-1990s over the explicit objection of voters, and after years of controversy and delay, the 10,000-seat baseball stadium sparked a revitalization that’s still reverberating through a section of downtown that Durham Mayor Bill Bell recalls was “a ghost town” a quarter-century ago.

Certainly the ACC has taken notice of the facility as well as the renaissance it produced, bringing a welter of proximate restaurants, hotels and other amenities. “The ACC wants to be a part of that,” said Mike Birling, the Bulls’ general manager.

Six times – virtually one year in three since the ballpark opened – the conference brought its baseball tournament to Durham, most recently in 2013. Then, a few weeks ago, following a region-wide bidding process, the ACC announced it will play its annual tournament at DBAP for the next four springs. Suddenly there’s a chance Durham, and the Triangle area from which the Class AAA Bulls draw, will become to ACC baseball what Omaha, Neb., is to the College World Series: a permanent home that helps define and enhance the event.

The move could prove one of the best things that’s ever happened to ACC baseball. “It’s a wonderful venue,” said N.C. State coach Elliott Avent. “They know how to be successful; they know how to market, and they love the game.”

Making the most of available resources is as important to the ACC as it is to any other business enterprise, particularly given the seemingly unquenchable thirst for funds in major-college athletics. And, of all the ACC’s so-called minor sports, none appears better poised for revenue growth than baseball, a warm-weather game with a long, familiar history. Baseball doesn’t share the collegiate stage with football or basketball as its season climaxes. The quality of ACC play and its players is impressive. Seven league teams competed in this year’s NCAA baseball tournament, second only to the SEC’s 10. The ACC had at least one team in the College World Series every year since 2006 – a better high-level run than football or men’s or women’s basketball achieved over that span. Louisville, which replaces baseball lightweight Maryland in 2014-15, has made two CWS appearances (2007, 2013) and been to the NCAAs eight times since 2002, including this season.

Generating revenue

What ACC baseball has lacked is visibility. Unlike the neighboring SEC, the league boasts a single national champion (Wake Forest in 1955) and hasn’t made much of a popular splash. The recently concluded SEC tournament, played in Hoover, Ala., outside Birmingham for the 17th consecutive season, drew 134,496 spectators. By contrast the ACC version, played simultaneously at Greensboro, attracted 57,343 fans, about the same as Durham drew the previous year.

“I think we’d love to get it to the point where it’s a revenue-generator for the conference,” Kris Pierce, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for championships and senior woman administrator, said of the six-day baseball tournament. “But right now our focus is still on building the event, making it a good event that helps prepare our teams for the postseason. Certainly as college baseball is growing in such popularity on the national landscape, we need to take advantage of that in the Atlantic Coast Conference when we have such a wealth of talent.”

The ACC sent out requests for proposals to a number of cities, settling on finalists Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Florida’s St. Petersburg-Clearwater. Bids were solicited for multiyear stays, a prospect that piqued the interest of the Bulls, who host the Class AAA all-star game next month. A 2013 semifinals matchup between N.C. State and North Carolina – both of which ultimately advanced to the CWS – had convinced Durham management and community leaders that there was a promising future in hosting the ACC tournament.

“That was our eye-opening moment, when Carolina played State and we went 18 innings,” Birling said of a game that attracted 11,392 fans, the largest crowd ever to see a college contest in North Carolina. “Two in the morning there’s still seven, eight thousand people here.

“For a Bulls game, there would have been about 15 people here, because it’s more about the experience. But that’s the fun part – to see that passion for baseball around here. That was kind of the moment that we said, ‘Hey, we need to go for this; we need to go for this strong.’ 

Ready to settle in

For all the attention paid to the ACC basketball tournament’s upcoming perambulations, the conference apparently is gravitating toward fixed sites to host major championships. The ACC football title game has been played in Charlotte since 2010, and is scheduled to remain through at least 2019. Greensboro is the permanent home of the ACC women’s basketball tournament and is more or less the default location for the men’s tournament, too.

Now it seems baseball, which stayed in Greenville, S.C., from 1987 through 1995 and from 2005-08 in Jacksonville, Fla., may be ready to settle in Durham for awhile. Forging a strong presence in the nation’s 24th-largest local TV market won’t hurt. Ballpark owner Jim Goodmon and his Capitol Broadcasting Co. are savvy in media matters, owning several Raleigh television stations and a prominent Triangle sports-talk radio outlet.

“Durham put together a really attractive bid between their facility enhancements – $20 million in facility enhancements always looks good – and they also put together a significant media package to help us advertise and market,” said Pierce. “They were very clear throughout the bid process that they wanted to be a permanent home, that they wanted to make it just like Omaha, and that they wanted to invest in the tournament to help it grow.”

Pierce said the ACC’s baseball coaches wanted to try a fixed site. Avent, who said he was “in total support,” was skeptical of unanimous consent. “I’ve been at N.C. State for 18 years, and I’m not sure we’ve agreed on three things in the entirety of that time at the coaches’ meetings,” he said.

However no one would dispute the charms of DBAP, which the News and Observer’s Tim Vercellotti called “a palatial setting for baseball” upon its opening in 1995. That the $16.1 million facility was even built was remarkable. Durham’s downtown was a somnolent husk – like those in many cities ravaged by trendy suburban development – when Bulls owner Miles Wolff and Durham County, eager to pursue a revitalization strategy, asked voters to approve public financing for a new ballpark near a derelict American Tobacco factory. But the March 1990 bond measure failed.

Goodmon, who bought billboard space to oppose the bond, purchased the team and threatened to move it to a proposed multisport complex near Research Triangle Park. That blow to Durham’s pride was headed off by heated negotiations and a vote by the city council to pay for a new stadium in defiance of the voters’ will. Goodmon created his highly successful American Tobacco campus adjacent to the Durham Freeway, government provided parking decks, and the area flourished.

“Now, you look back, there’s not too many people that would say, ‘I voted no,’ ” Birling said with a laugh.

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