Luke DeCock

DeCock: Expanding ACC follows NASCAR’s uncertain path

The ACC spent Monday gallivanting about New York in an eerie echo of a similar expedition made by NASCAR in June 2003, when Nextel replaced Winston as title sponsor. Ditching tobacco for telecommunications in Times Square neatly summed up the changes the stock-car circuit underwent as it morphed from regional pastime to national product.

A decade later, NASCAR continues to benefit from that growth as well as deal with its consequences, from declining television ratings to empty grandstands. It’s a cautionary tale for the ACC, a league now so sprawling that it ditched the ACC seal logo that once marked the location of all members on a simple map of the East Coast. Simple cartography can no longer contain it.

“The ACC and NASCAR kind of parallel each other in a lot of ways,” said Humpy Wheeler, the former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway and a longtime observer of both organizations. “The ACC was regional and has become national, and certainly that’s what NASCAR did. The whole reason for going to New York, of course, was to take advantage of that national media. It actually worked. It got NASCAR more publicity on that announcement than any announcement for a sponsorship that I’m aware of.”

With the official addition Monday of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, the ACC is mimicking NASCAR’s attempts to capitalize on its increasing popularity outside the South by leaving places like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham while taking away the Labor Day weekend Southern 500 from Darlington.

In pursuit of that larger, national demographic, NASCAR lost touch with what made it unique and popular in the first place, the venues and the personalities and the rough edges. People in Phoenix and Los Angeles and Chicago didn’t seem quite as interested. More disconcertingly, neither were some long-time fans.

“The loss of Rockingham and Wilkesboro and the cutting out of a race at Darlington backfired,” Wheeler said. “I thought if we didn’t have those races, Charlotte’s fall race would sell out. All those tracks had races that infringed on the time we were trying to sell tickets. The entire opposite happened. It made people mad, people in the South, race fans in the South. It was another example of cutting the working people out.”

The ACC has been propelled along this path by outside threats and forces rather than blind ambition, but it is dealing with similar issues now as it expands into a much larger league encompassing the entire Eastern seaboard. For a long time, “Atlantic Coast” meant only from Chesapeake Bay to Charleston. Now, it truly includes everything from Cape Cod to Key Biscayne.

The Carolina schools, with help from Virginia and Georgia Tech and Maryland, made the league great with their proximity and shared basketball culture. By adding these Big East schools, with their own strong, shared basketball culture, the conference risks diluting, if not losing, the Tobacco Road heritage that made the ACC what it was in the first place. The ACC did a poor job of maintaining that identity through the first round of expansion, particularly because it was driven entirely by football. This latest round restores basketball to its proper place of primacy, but risks altering the league’s DNA the same way NASCAR did when it moved races around the country.

“When you start really monkeying around with tradition, it’s the price you pay for going national,” Wheeler said. “It does bite you in some ways.”

The ACC couldn’t rumble along Tobacco Road forever, but its future doesn’t lie exclusively in Times Square, either. The key to the ACC’s continued success is finding the right mix of New York and New Bern, in a way NASCAR never has.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer