Luke DeCock

Winds of change ready to reshape Triangle sports scene in 2017 – DeCock

Notre Dame beat North Carolina in the 2015 ACC Tournament championship in Greensboro. The league has since moved championships out of the state due to HB2.
Notre Dame beat North Carolina in the 2015 ACC Tournament championship in Greensboro. The league has since moved championships out of the state due to HB2. Getty Images

This new year has the potential to be a big one for the Triangle in the wide, wide world of sports, and not only because even after a disastrous opening day of ACC play on Saturday there’s still a chance – an infinitesimally small chance, but a chance nonetheless – of putting three teams in the Final Four, if not two for the first time in 26 years.

By the time 2017 turns into 2018, the sports landscape of the Triangle could look dramatically different than it does today, with sweeping changes potentially afoot, and soon.

Looming most menacingly, still, is House Bill 2, which could do more damage to sports in the Triangle than just about anything since the gambling scandal that put an end to the Dixie Classic. If the failed pre-Christmas attempt at repeal was the last shot at overturning or at least modifying HB2 until the special legislative elections scheduled for November, then the entire state faces a six-year ban on NCAA and ACC championships.

We’ve already lost this academic year, and while it could be months before the NCAA and ACC pull the events from 2017-18, it bears repeating yet again the NCAA is in the process of handing out championships for the next cycle, which includes the 2018-19 through 2021-22 seasons. The NCAA was kind enough to delay that bid cycle, but time has run out, and those decisions are now expected in April.

And if losing the ACC football title game from Charlotte was bad, it could get dramatically worse. The ACC basketball tournament is scheduled for Charlotte in 2019 and Greensboro in 2020. Unlike the football game, which was relatively easily moved, the basketball tournament requires thousands of hotel rooms and an arena available for a week-long booking at the busiest time of the year.

The 2017 women’s basketball tournament, suddenly homeless when the ACC pulled this year’s events out of North Carolina, ended up at Coastal Carolina. The ACC can’t take those kinds of risks with its signature event. It will unavoidably have to pull the plug on the men’s tournaments in 2019 and 2020 soon – another potential blow to the state’s sports solar plexus.

On a brighter note, MLS is moving forward with expansion and the next 12 months will have a lot to say about whether North Carolina FC – the team formerly known as the RailHawks – can cut the line and force its way into the conversation. From the start, MLS has been clear that it wants a stable owner, a suitable facility and market support for the Triangle to be considered.

This has always been an enthusiastic if discerning soccer market – look at the crowds for the Carolina Courage and the RailHawks’ games against MLS and Mexican teams, even if fans weren’t as interested in NASL games – but with Stephen Malik and his willingness to build a new, 24,000-seat stadium somewhere in the area, the Triangle is now two-thirds of the way there.

While NCFC benefits from stable ownership, maybe this is the year the Carolina Hurricanes finally get some. At the least, general manager Ron Francis is seeing results from his rebuilding plan, and while the Hurricanes face long odds of making the playoffs this season, it’s still possible. As they continue to trend upward, by next January they may be in a position to enter the new year in the top half of the standings – perhaps with Jeff Skinner as captain.

While history would indicate it’s unlikely North Carolina’s issues with the NCAA are sorted out in 2017, especially since both sides appear to be gearing up for litigation over the NCAA’s ability to penalize the university for what North Carolina described as “academic fraud” to its academic sanctioning body while dancing around that phrase with the NCAA. More likely, the scandal drags on toward a ninth year without resolution.

If 2016 was about missed opportunities – North Carolina a shot away from a national championship in basketball, the Triangle’s best chances for a track medal derailed in the U.S. trials before even making it to Rio, the Hurricanes missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year, and so on – this year is probably going to be about change. For the better or the worse, it’s too soon to say.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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