Duke's baseball team returns home to cheering fans
The Durham Bulls organization and the city of Durham want to continue hosting the ACC baseball tournament beyond 2019 and the league has interest in returning.
Whether or not that will happen will depend upon the International League’s schedule makers and the whims of the ACC’s presidents.
The league agreed to a four-year deal to hold its tournament at Durham Bulls Athletic Park beginning in 2015. That deal was set to expire after the 2018 tournament. But after the league moved the 2017 tournament to Louisville when sports events were pulled out of North Carolina because of the controversial House Bill 2, the 2019 tournament was tacked on to the end of the deal.
Kris Pierce, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner in charge of championships, said the league will start taking bids from cities this summer for contracts up to four years, beginning with the 2020 event. The goal is to have a decision prior to the 2019 tournament.
At stake are millions of dollars in tourism spending for the winning community. This year’s event, featuring 12 teams and six days of games from May 22-27, pumped an estimated $9.6 million into the Triangle.
That’s up from $5.2 million in 2016, when the tournament was last held in Durham and only 10 teams participated. The ACC expanded the field one year later.
Pierce said the DBAP is a “wonderful” venue for the tournament and she praised the various Triangle groups that work to put on the event in Durham. The hope among those groups is for the DBAP to become the tournament’s permanent home, just as Omaha, Neb., is the College World Series’ permanent home.
The ACC isn’t there yet, though. Pierce said some within the league find it attractive to move tournaments around.
“We’ll see if that’s something that’s entertaining or whether the membership wants to leave it in the same spot and grow that fanbase,” Pierce said. “Durham has a lot of advantages. So it’s not the disadvantages of this location. It’s how do the advantages of this location stack up to the advantages of another location.”
The Bulls have played in the Class AAA International League since 1998. In order to the ACC hold its tournament at the DBAP, the International League has to schedule the Bulls on the road for the seven consecutive days prior to Memorial Day each May.
The league has complied often as the ACC tournament has been held at the DBAP eight times in the Bulls’ 21 seasons as a Class AAA team. But Bulls general manager Mike Birling said there’s no commitment to do so beyond 2019.
“That’s kind of the wild card right now,” Birling said.
Louisville also has a team in the International League. So does Charlotte. Both of those venues are expected to be among the bidders for the ACC tournament. So the International League schedule could be impacted whether the tournament is in Durham or not.
Durham Sports Commission executive director Ashleigh Bachert is among those working toward keeping the ACC at the DBAP beyond 2019.
“We don’t want to lose this event,” Bachert said. “It’s a great fit. We hear it from fans left and right. Florida State fans. Georgia Tech. it’s not just our Triangle schools. It really is just everyone, every single fan that comes in. Louisville fans have been telling us ‘This is such a good setup. You have everything here.’”
The Durham Sports Commission was formed by the city in 2016. Bachert, its first executive director, attended the tournament in Louisville last May to help her prepare for its first DBAP appearance under her watch in 2018.
The event drew 42,839 people in Louisville last year. Attendance for this year’s tournament at the DBAP was 43,483.
“I think the ACC is pleased with Durham and with the ballpark,” Bachert said. “Louisville did a great job last year. But just watching the difference between the two, I think definitely you can tell it was meant to be in Durham and meant to be in the Triangle.”
Even though the ACC’s presence affects the Bulls home schedule, Birling wants the league tournament to stay because of its impact on the Triangle as a whole.
“We think it helps everything,” Birling said. “Here with the Durham Bulls, it’s all about, we just want to grow the sport. We don’t necessarily have to grow the Bulls. We just love the game of baseball. We just want to grow it and we know what baseball does for a community. Anything we can do to keep the tournament here we are going to try to do.”