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Would the ACC Leave Charlotte?

By Matt Smith
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Venues for ACC Championship Games beyond the 2013 game in Charlotte have not been announced.

With the Mountain West adding a conference championship game this fall, the first weekend of December will now consist of seven contests between division winners.

Four of those (ACC, Big Ten, MAC, SEC) are held at neutral sites, while three (Conference USA, Mountain West, Pac-12) are played on campus sites. Of the four at neutral sites, only the SEC has generated consistent sellouts.

The sample size is small for the Big Ten, as its first championship game was held in 2011. In addition, last year’s 41,260 (some 23,000 less than in 2011) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis saw a 7-5 Wisconsin team participate in the game due to bowl bans imposed on 12-0 Ohio State and 8-4 Penn State.

The ACC will hold its ninth championship game this December in Charlotte, N.C., the fourth consecutive year Bank of America Stadium has hosted the game after three years in Jacksonville and two in Tampa. Despite announced attendance figures of more than 50,000 in seven of eight years, empty seats have been aplenty.

When the Pac-12 instituted a championship game in 2011, it decided to holds it game on campus rather than at a neutral site such as Las Vegas or a quasi-neutral site like Los Angeles or Phoenix. The Mountain West chose the same route.

As the ACC footprint has expanded north with the additions of Pittsburgh and Syracuse and west with Louisville’s arrival in 2014, distance for fans to the site of the championship game becomes a greater concern. Six of the 14 school in the league are located more than 450 miles from Charlotte, not ideal for a weekend getaway that may only be known a week in advance.

Conference commissioner John Swofford appeared on The David Glenn Show Thursday, and addressed potentially moving the championship game to campus sites.

“Sometimes we have discussions about the game being on campus, which is what the Pac-12 is doing,” Swofford said, “but I think the success of the game in Charlotte probably bodes well for its future in Charlotte.”

Venues for ACC Championship Games beyond the 2013 game in Charlotte have not been announced. Swofford, also on The David Glenn Show, said he expected a decision to be made on at least the 2014 game by December.

“The game has been more successful in Charlotte than anywhere else we have taken it,” Swofford said. “We’ve been in Charlotte three years—two of those years were sellouts.”

Unlike the Big Ten, who could rationalize multiple cities for its championship game (Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis), this shouldn’t be a multi-layered decision for the ACC. It’s Charlotte or campus sites. No other option makes sense.

The SEC has planted its flag in Atlanta, so that’s not an option. The league already tried putting all of its egg in the Florida State and Miami baskets, which backfired when the teams combined to win just one of 10 division titles between 2005 and 2009 when the game was held in Florida. While Florida State and Miami are both trending up, the teams are still a long way from where they were in 1988. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Charlotte works well when one (or two) of Clemson, N.C. State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech play in the game. The Tigers and Hokies set the all-time high for attendance in 2011 with over 73,000 at Bank of America Stadium. Had the game been played at the division champion with the best record, Virginia Tech would have hosted. Lane Stadium in Blacksburg holds just 65,000. Advantage Charlotte.

Last year, Florida State and Georgia Tech met in front of an announced crowd of 64,778. Had that game been in Tallahassee, where the Seminoles averaged over 75,000 fans per game last season, the crowd would almost certainly have been larger (and warmer) than the one in Charlotte. Advantage campus sites.

It’s hard to believe in this era of money-grubbing capitalism in college football, but this decision isn’t strictly dollars and cents. Fair or not, there is a perception that a neutral-site conference championship game helps legitimize a conference. With only 12 or 13 games in a season, as well as with the selection committee for the upcoming playoff, perception is reality more so in college football than in any other sport.

Frankly, the ACC has been a victim of some bad luck. Florida State’s four-year drought of division titles ended in the first year the game moved out of the Sunshine State. Last year, North Carolina would have played in the game had it not been issued a bowl ban. Boston College and Wake Forest, who traditionally battle to be the caboose on the ACC’s attendance train, combined to win three straight Atlantic Division titles from 2006-2008.

Charlotte might not be the perfect solution, but it’s the best one. It’ll never become what Atlanta is to the SEC, but it gives the ACC a comfortable home in a central location. Sure, there will probably be a Florida State-Miami game in the next few years, but would that many more ‘Canes fans even show up to a game in Jacksonville than in Charlotte? Probably not.

If the ACC wants to stay in the realm of college football royalty, it should keep its championship game in the Queen City.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.