Jacobs: ACC basketball tournament adjusts to the times

May 16, 2014 

Move it in space or time, grow it longer or larger. Brooklyn? Saturday night? Five days long? No matter – the ACC basketball tournament remains essentially unchanged, a vestige of last century’s competitive goals adjusted to meet today’s commercial specifications.

Before the Atlantic Coast Conference even had a name, its founders were intent on creating a “playing conference,” as minutes from a June 14, 1953 meeting at Raleigh’s Sir Walter Hotel attest. Over the decades, most of the ACC’s early understandings changed, including scholastic compatibility among schools and the notion all members played each other annually. But the equal opportunity afforded by the tournament has not wavered.

Before 1953 ended, the upstart ACC grew to eight members, then voted 5-3 to spurn overtures to include Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Now the ACC is nearly twice as large as it was at the outset, its members so numerous a round robin schedule in basketball is gone. Achieving simple stability and equity in basketball pairings is a chore, never mind nurturing old rivalries. Maintaining a playing conference in football is equally impractical – just the other day league representatives decided to stick with eight ACC games per school, leaving six members as competitive strangers.

The most prominent corner harboring traces of the old, inclusive model is the ACC men’s basketball tournament, a moneymaker from its opening tipoff at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum on March 4, 1954. Unlike next week’s ACC baseball tournament, which accommodates 10 of 15 league members, the basketball version is still come-one, come-all. Teams may have to travel to D.C. or Brooklyn, but everyone gets a relatively even chance to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament.

Employing a single-elimination, season-ending tournament as a means of crowning a conference champion has not stood without challenge. Most coaches in the ACC’s first decade were vocal in preferring to honor the regular-season winner; their gripes were echoed by observers who derided the tournament as an enervating, pointless distraction. Maryland’s Bud Millikan proposed a revenue-generating holiday tournament as a substitute for the end-of-year closeout; his idea got little traction. In 1963 and again in 1964, a league subcommittee proposed that, in the event an undefeated team during the regular season lost in the ACC tournament, it could meet the tournament champion in a one-game playoff to decide the league’s NCAA representative. Fortunately that proposal died.

Satisfy TV needs

The conference’s early days also saw considerable debate over the advisability of televising tournament contests. TV was still a relative novelty, as were sports telecasts. Skeptics argued quaintly that a league could overexpose its product if viewing access was too convenient. In fact, the ACC came to enjoy the best of both worlds, box office and Nielsen. The tournament quickly became a sellout, with demand for tickets driving contributions to school booster clubs, where qualifying thresholds kept rising. Eventually, every game was televised by someone or other, sometimes simultaneously, for a handsome price. Until relatively recently, ACC men’s basketball carried the conference’s value in the television marketplace, the tournament the crown jewel.

Eager to satisfy TV’s needs, the ACC rearranged the 1978 men’s basketball tournament so its Saturday championship contest could be incorporated into Jim McKay’s highly popular ABC series, “Wide World of Sports.” The quarterfinals were played on Wednesday, the semifinals on Thursday. On Friday the ACC basketball gods rested, producing a title game at 4:30 on Saturday afternoon.

In 1982 the three-day ACC tournament was adjusted so the title game was played on Sunday afternoon. That meant the conference champions barely finished cutting down the nets before their moment of glory was eclipsed by wall-to-wall coverage of NCAA tournament selections.

So the announcement this week that the ACC tournament championship contest will move to Saturday night at 8:30 is more than “kind of a ‘Back to the Future’ moment for our conference,” as ACC commissioner John Swofford put it in a press release. Having time to savor victory and command the national stage before the conversation turns to NCAA pairings is a long-discussed marketing stratagem apt to please even harsh critics of ACC leadership.

Five-day tournament

What the future may hold for the ACC tournament is a matter ripe for speculation. Thankfully, the league has resisted selling naming rights to its signature event, although in the current fiscal climate atop the collegiate food chain we’ve seen that almost anything goes. Once the league also sought the largest-possible venues for the tournament, and those without tickets sometimes developed elaborate schemes to sneak in. Now sellouts are a thing of the past and so are domes, at least for the short run.

Fifteen teams not only make for a tough task divvying up tickets, but starting last season resulted in a five-day tournament. That ate up most of a work week for a normal person. Once Florida State became the league’s ninth team in 1992, the tournament grew to eight games in four days, an endurance test for spectators and most certainly for competitors. The degree of difficulty rose again in 2005 when the number of games and members increased to double digits. Not surprisingly, since ’92 only two teams advanced through four games from the first round to reach the final – No. 8 N.C. State in 1997 under Herb Sendek and 10th-seed N.C. State in 2007 under Sidney Lowe, Sendek’s successor. Both were beaten by North Carolina for the conference championship.

Based on that precedent, and the quick exits of last year’s opening day winners at Greensboro, one might argue little would be lost by returning the tournament to a four-day span. In fact, that argument already is being made and may be mounted with increasing fervor over time. But so far, tradition, the desire for live TV inventory, and the promise of one last chance at redemption, however slim, has kept every team in the mix.

Meanwhile, the league has committed to making the tournament more of a road show than it has ever been. In keeping with a more aggressive marketing strategy, the event returns to Washington in 2016 and then moves to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center amid New York’s massive media market in 2017 and 2018. Then it’s back to Charlotte and Greensboro. Remarkably, the span from 2016-18 will be the first time the tournament is played outside North Carolina in consecutive years.

Throughout the ’80s, the ACC tournament alternated annually between North Carolina venues and arenas in Maryland and Atlanta. From 1990 through 2004, fans within North Carolina grew spoiled; other than a trip to the Georgia Dome in 2001, the event stayed in Charlotte or Greensboro. Over the past decade there have been single visits to D.C. (2005) and Florida (2007), and appearances at two different Atlanta sites – the Georgia Dome in 2009 and Philips Arena in 2012.

The ACC tournament’s itinerant nature in the near future seems equitable given the conference’s far-flung membership. Generating excitement in new places can’t hurt, either. The danger is that the event’s sense of specialness, already waning, may fade the same way regional differences blur in landscapes filled with identically designed roadways, housing, highways, and stores.

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