Steve Stewart has attended every ACC tournament game since 1996, missing a single half of action in all that time. Prior to that, the semi-retired Carrboro resident made it to tournament games whenever he could. “I’m not a big money guy,” says Stewart, decked out in Demon Deacon paraphernalia last week at the Greensboro Coliseum. “I just love the ACC, I love basketball, and of course I love Wake Forest.”
But with the conference tournament moving next year to Washington, D.C. and then to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2017 and 2018, Stewart thinks the league has left fans like him behind. “I’m pretty confident we don’t count,” he says. He may go to Washington, as he did in 2005, but Brooklyn is a bridge too far. “My opinion is, I do think it will work out fine for the ACC financially, but not for the average fans who care about the ACC. It’s kind of sad.”
The prospective fate of the tournament, about to be unmoored from North Carolina for the longest stretch in history, was a frequent topic of conversation at this year’s event. The ACC tournament returns to Charlotte in 2019, then to Greensboro in 2020. After that, the preference of the recently arrived batch of former Big East coaches – who pushed the new Friday-night, Saturday-night format for the semifinals and final – is to fix the tournament long-term in New York City, preferably at Madison Square Garden.
That viewpoint must be reconciled with a tradition of rootedness in North Carolina, which hosted the ACC tournament 51 times at Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. Clearly, geography has made a difference for the ACC’s North Carolina-based teams, shut out of the final just once in 62 years (1990).
Locale similarly matters for the thousands of fans who patronize the event. They care about the length of the journey to reach the host city, and what it costs to attend for nearly a week. They enjoy being part of the biggest attraction in a town that shares their interest, as Greensboro clearly does.
“I think that it’s challenging for those who weren’t born and raised here, which I was, to understand the passion for the league,” says N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow, who came to Raleigh from the University of Maryland. The ACC’s perceived North Carolina orientation was long and loudly resented at Maryland, which left the ACC in 2014. “When you’re outside the state all you see is a competitive advantage because of ease of travel for fans and for schools within the state. So I understand that as well.”
Louisville folks tasted that perceived disadvantage while losing to North Carolina before a loud contingent of Tar Heel fans in the quarterfinals. Pittsburgh supporters likewise confronted a red wall of raucous N.C. State supporters in a second-round defeat by the Wolfpack. Mike Brey, a former Duke assistant directing a poised group of veterans, well understood the lay of the land. On the eve of defeating UNC for the 2015 championship, the Notre Dame coach noted, “I guess it’s only fitting that to get it, you have to go through Duke and North Carolina down here on their turf.”
Meanwhile, those vocal spectators enjoyed more than cheering on their favorites. The ACC tournament immersed them in an upbeat communal atmosphere, all league roads leading to a single spot. They got to see every ACC team in action in quick succession, including four ranked teams battling in the semifinals.
Being on-hand also offered opportunities that elude home viewers, like a chance to appreciate the panoply of sideline antics of Buzz Williams, the ACC’s latest outsized character. The first-year Virginia Tech coach’s near-constant, manic intensity can be caught in televised glimpses as he guides and prods his squad. But you wouldn’t want to miss the way Williams applauds, repeatedly smacking his right fist into his left palm (try it, it hurts), or his straying from a team huddle to coach a fan attempting free throws in a promotional contest during a game timeout.
That immediacy, the quality of play, and a sense of being at the center of the region’s attention, propelled the ACC tournament to become a perpetual sellout from 1965 through 2008. “It had become a fashionable thing to do,” recalls Irwin Smallwood, a retired newspaperman from Greensboro. “’Are you going to the ACC tournament? Of course. Doesn’t everyone?’” Even today, when tickets are available on the open market, attendance retains a certain cachet.
The ACC tournament is experienced quite differently by the vast majority of fans – and consumers – watching from afar via television or internet. For them, one site is as good as another. The venue is mere backdrop when the tournament is a convenient click away.
“Crowds are down everywhere, and it makes you wonder if (basketball) is going to be a studio game,” Smallwood says. “Just tear out all the seats, the tournament could be in an ESPN studio. No, I’m just kidding. We have other things going on. But it almost looks that way.”
Smallwood, 89, is the last surviving witness to the ACC’s founding in May 1953, which he covered for the Greensboro Daily News. He recalls school leaders meeting in room 230 at the city’s Sedgefield Country Club and Inn to ratify formation of the new conference. “They were in the proverbial smoke-filled room, and when they opened the door a lot of smoke did come out,” Smallwood says.
Back to the future
What also emerged was a new, more compact league separated from smaller, less sports-oriented colleagues in the Southern Conference. Virginia Tech and Miami made overtures to join the ACC at the outset, but were rebuffed, with travel difficulties in that era before interstate highways a key consideration.
Smallwood sees the expansions of this century – which added Virginia Tech, Miami and others until the ACC has grown to 15 members, two shy of the unwieldy Southern Conference of the 1950s – as an ironic step “sort of back to the future.” He also wonders how the league’s decision-making will change in its enlarged configuration, with more former Big East members (seven) than schools that participated in the league’s founding (six counting Virginia, which formally joined in December 1953).
“What is the center of power going to be?” he asks. “The Big Four” – Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake – “have basically been the center of power.”
The hard realities of long-term conference viability will come into play in deciding where to site future ACC tournaments, just as they did in expanding to include schools beyond the Southeast. Like it or not, taking the league’s signature event to different markets serves to democratize and further monetize the tournament, to give it a new feel and to reach beyond traditional fan and sponsorship bases.
“I think it was inevitable that we go,” says N.C. State’s Yow. “I’m fine with doing it. I think what’s going to happen is that we’re going to grow to appreciate even more Greensboro as a site.”
Wherever the road leads, league decision-makers are betting that well-heeled fans will follow their favorite team, especially if the prospect of an ACC championship beckons. Even if it means venturing to New York to consort with all those Yankees.