When he was a kid in the 1970s, Durham's R.L. Bynum would sneak a transistor radio into class to hear the first-round games of the ACC Tournament, which in those days weren't televised. As a teenager, he saved money from his paper route to drive to Greensboro and buy tickets outside the coliseum.
Back then, you had to win the ACC Tournament to make the NCAA field. Every game counted. All seven teams had a shot.
But Bynum, 51, a UNC fan, hasn't attended the tournament in more than a decade, when he covered the event for a string of newspapers across North Carolina. It's just not the same.
"There's not as much excitement," he said. "We might just be better off not to have it."
That lack of excitement has been reflected in recent attendance numbers.
In 2009, only about half of the people who bought roughly 26,000 tickets per session passed through the turnstiles at the Georgia Dome on Thursday. Roughly 6,000 seats were empty, on average, for the four Friday quarterfinal games.
Then last March, 2,000 all-session books went unsold at the Greensboro Coliseum. Turnstile counts were down as much as 4,000 people during last year's Friday night session, compared to the 2006 tournament at the Coliseum; roughly 2,000 fewer people went through the turnstiles for last year's championship final, compared to four years before.
League officials have scrambled to fill more seats as the 58th annual tourney begins today - offering more tickets to schools closer to Greensboro and allotting more to corporate sponsors. Karl Hicks, the ACC associate commissioner for men's basketball operations, said that as of Wednesday afternoon, no more than 250 ticket books were available, and "we're excited because we expect to have a full building."
But the fact that the conference has had to tweak its policies shows that the tournament just isn't the same in-person draw that it once was, and for several reasons:
Expansion to 12 teams has brought in new fans who are less tied to ACC history, perhaps less passionate about the tournament - and less likely to travel to it.
The country is still recovering from the worst economy since the Great Depression in the 1930s, making it harder to afford the $396 all-session book - plus lodging, meals and missed work.
Only one team besides Duke and North Carolina has won the tournament title over the past 14 years, lessening its competitive drama.
"Growing up as a kid in Eastern North Carolina, and watching the ACC come together and reach its pinnacle in the '70s, '80s and '90s, I never dreamt of a time when more tickets would be available than people to grab them,'' said former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, who led the Deacons to back-to-back tourney titles in 1995 and 1996. "Back then, the game itself was terrific to watch, there was a cast of characters that made it what it was, there was a proximity to all of the schools. ... And that's just not the case anymore."
When the league opted to add Florida State in 1991, then Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 and Boston College in 2005, it expanded the footprint of the league. It also diluted the institutional memory of the fan base.
Many Eagles, Hurricanes and Hokies faithful don't recall legendary ACC games such as N.C. State's 1974 championship overtime win against Maryland, which is widely considered one of the best college basketball games ever played.
And while Greensboro remains the relative midpoint of the ACC, attending the tournament means a plane ride for Miami, Boston College and FSU fans, while almost everyone else can drive. Not surprisingly, most of last March's unsold ticket books belonged to those three schools.
"Before expansion, somebody was born into the ACC tournament,'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "There were people who were actually in someone's belly, who were at the tournament, then when they got out, they became ACC fans. ... So unless those teams in expansion were playing for the championship, it's tough to get into that. So there's a little bit of erosion there."
And a lot more expense.
Adding FSU as the league's ninth team meant adding a fourth day to the tourney - a Thursday play-in game in 1992 that raised the cost of an all-session ticket book from $105 to $120. Expanding to 12 teams meant adding three more Thursday games to that, raising the price of the all-session booklet from $260 in 2004 to $363 in 2006.
Add the cost of another night of hotel, another day's worth of food, another missed day of work ... and all of a sudden, it's a lot cheaper to watch the tournament at home on TV, where ratings have varied slightly over the past few years, but not significantly enough to indicate a trend, said Ken Haines, Raycom CEO and president.
"People may not feel there is an opportunity for their team to kind of win out, if you will,'' said ESPN broadcaster Len Elmore, an All-America at Maryland in 1974. "And in this economy, it's pretty expensive to go to these games, and you have to certainly be invested in this tournament."
Four teams, Wake Forest, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Maryland, experienced a sharp decline in attendance during the regular season. On average, roughly 2,000 fewer fans, per game, attended games at those schools compared to 2009-10.
Lack of competition
Even with the impact of expansion, though, it's hard to blame Boston College, Miami or Virginia Tech for the fact that traditional ACC teams such as Virginia and N.C. State haven't been competitive lately, either.
This marks the second time in four seasons that only two teams (this time, Duke at No. 5 and North Carolina at No. 6) enter the tournament ranked in the Associated Press Top 25; a decade ago, the norm was three to five ACC teams.
Analysts point to constant coach and player turnover for some of the league's mediocrity. The league had three new coaches this season (at Clemson, Boston College and Wake Forest) and one last year (at Virginia). Currently, two more - Sidney Lowe at N.C. State and Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech - are on the hot seat. That's a long way from the days when Odom, Bobby Cremins, Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Krzyzewski and Lefty Driesell (who all spent at least 10 years at their respective schools) patrolled the sidelines.
Meanwhile, with the rush to the NBA, it's rare to have star athletes stay three or four years.
"Again, it goes back to the emotional identification,'' Elmore said. "It's harder to do with a guy one or two years as opposed to a guy that stays all four. Witness what's happening here with [Duke senior] Nolan Smith, who has grown before your eyes, while Kyle Singler has developed before your eyes into an outstanding player."
The only team that has won the ACC tournament title except the Blue Devils or Tar Heels, since 1996, was Maryland in 2004. Over the 15 years prior to the Tobacco Road dominance, a half-dozen teams won the championship, and a seventh (Virginia) was in the title game four times. Duke has won nine times from 1997 to 2010.
"North Carolina and Duke have got to be good, but the others have got to win, challenge,'' Odom said. "If not, it's the same-old, same-old."
And that gets, well, old.
Frank Miller, a 77-year-old Terrapins fan from Mount Airy, Md., has attended all but two ACC tournaments since 1977 (he missed one when his mother died, and the other when his son was in a car crash). The first years were exciting because they were unpredictable, he said. There was more room for upsets. The field for the NCAA Tournament wasn't a foregone conclusion, so he stayed to the final buzzer.
But now, "If it's a Duke-UNC final, we'll come home."
They haven't seen a Sunday game in years.
Staff writer Ken Tysiac contributed to this story.
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