We get the message.
Many of us got the message long ago – even if we still occasionally feel betrayed when our passionate support for our favorite team is punctured by cold, hard fact. Should we forget our place in college sports’ modern corporate universe, all we need are a few unvarnished observations from Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim about the ACC tournament to set us straight.
Live long enough and you’re forced to come to terms with certain unwelcome realities, like eyesight deteriorating or hair turning gray. You tell yourself you look distinguished with glasses, that gray adds a patina of wisdom. Or you cover up outward manifestations of age if that suits you better. But cosmetic adjustment doesn’t make the changes any less real. So it is with ACC basketball. Underlying truths have shifted, and no amount of appeals to loyalty and tradition can alter the equation.
Fans know they’re increasingly taken for granted, especially here in North Carolina, where the new, bigger and supposedly better ACC was born and nurtured, embraced and venerated. Boeheim was only being honest when he pointed that out.
Of course media members attending the tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn fixated on the controversial aspect of Boeheim’s remarks, particularly his slamming Greensboro as a venue. A snappy putdown issued by Greensboro folks via Twitter rounded out the story, along with words of appreciation for the city that’s hosted 26 ACC tournaments, twice as many as the next-nearest site (Raleigh from 1954 through 1966). “I love Greensboro,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, making an analogy to playing the Masters at modest-sized Augusta, Georgia. “Don’t ever forget your roots.”
Value is relative
Yet there was a broader context to Boeheim’s comments that shouldn’t be lost, starting with the Hall of Famer’s praise for New York as a tournament venue.
Boeheim, who announced several years ago that he would retire following the 2017-18 season, pivoted from the merits of habitually strutting on the grandest possible stage to deriding the foolishness of including a smaller city like Greensboro in the tournament mix.
“I’m not going to be around much longer to care about it, but I think that’s where the value is,” he said of major metropolises. “I think there’s a huge value in playing the tournament in those places. There’s no value in playing in Greensboro, none. It’s there because the league’s been there and the office is there, and they have 150 people that the ACC needs. That’s why it’s there. It should not be there … I mean, New York, Washington, Atlanta, that’s where the media centers are,” said the 72-year-old native of a small town in northwestern New York state.
Maryland coach Gary Williams often made a similar argument for holding the ACC’s annual preseason basketball get-together in New York, and for getting the tournament out of North Carolina. Both Williams and Boeheim apparently missed the shifts in the communications universe toward alternate, decentralized media, lessening the clout of traditional news outlets and aggregations. As for marginalizing North Carolina, Williams was just ahead of his time.
“I’m just saying what’s right,” Boeheim insisted. “Why do you think the Big Ten is coming into New York? (Next year at Madison Square Garden, moving its tournament up a week to fit an available slot.) It’s business, good business sense. They all say it’s a business. Well, then, let’s start acting like it’s a business.”
Memo to Boeheim: Syracuse’s very presence in the tournament, and his opportunity to slam the conference’s customs, is evidence the ACC started acting like a business long ago.
Chroniclers of the major conference realignments that recently gripped college sports cite Penn State joining the Big 10 in 1991 as a precipitating factor in fostering the institutional game of musical chairs. But Penn State, like Florida State when it joined the ACC a year later, was an independent. South Carolina likewise left independent status, Arkansas an unraveling Southwest Conference, when it joined the SEC in ’92.
But the frenzy of one league raiding another – disregarding traveling distances, traditions and cultural affinities – began in earnest a bit more than a decade later when the ACC picked off Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East. That naked aggression was condemned in some quarters but drew enduring praise from ACC leaders and so-called realists as a brilliant business move.
The much-appreciated, equity-producing round robin in basketball was an immediate casualty, apparently a small price to pay for the league’s enhanced football profile, TV rights fees and marketing opportunities. Less than a decade later, acting to preempt action by others, the ACC finished off the old Big East by absorbing Notre Dame (except in football and hockey), Pitt and Syracuse, and then grabbed Louisville after Maryland was poached by the Big 10.
Through it all, as the league extended its reach and grew its revenues, the interests of fans, from rivalries to game times, lost primacy. The endless quest for dollars and prestige clearly is what it’s all about, as Boeheim was quick to remind us. Dedicated fans are valued as much as consumers, as animated backdrops to add excitement to game action, as they are as passionate supporters.
Big city tour
Meanwhile, the push to expand media and marketing opportunities beyond the traditional ACC region is unlikely to abate. The tournament already is scheduled for Brooklyn again in 2018, part of a planned multiyear odyssey that took it to Washington last season. In 2019 the event is supposed to return to Charlotte. (Which, according to 2015 population estimates, has 150,000 more residents than D.C., by the way.) Little old Greensboro is scheduled to host in 2020.
But, thanks to the existence of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, there’s a good chance the six-year itinerary set in 2014 will be appropriately short-circuited in the name of respecting spectator equity. That leaves Boeheim’s vision of embracing a tour of big cities, one he shares with Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, a fellow Big East emigre, as the likeliest scenario to emerge in the near future.
That would be unfortunate, and not only from the perspective of lost atmosphere, disrupted regional rhythms and a fair sharing of the wealth. There’s no doubt a small corner of a major city may be captivated by the presence of an ACC tournament. Overall, though, such places regard the gathering as just another glorified business convention, rather than a featured event that does a community proud.
There’s also a price to be paid by fans – literally – by moving the ACC tournament to major metropolitan areas. The burden of hotels, meals, transportation, parking and other expenses in those cities is apt to become burdensome for many loyalists from North Carolina, where median household incomes rank 39th nationally. That may not matter to well-paid coaches and league decision-makers, but it certainly discourages attendance by average fans.
Losing the physical presence of folks for whom winter’s end ritualistically includes a day or a weekend at the ACC tournament probably won’t affect revenues for the ACC and its corporate partners. What it will affect is the sense ACC games are more than a series of commodities, and the venerable notion the people who attend are honored guests rather than ciphers fed into a financial model.