SBJ/20081201/This Week's News

ACC targets Tampa to rejuvenate title game

In the middle of Tampa, where the ACC will give rebirth to its football championship game this week, an eye-catching 60-foot Tampa Bay Rays banner hangs from a downtown bank building.

The original idea called for the banner to carry an ACC championship game logo, but when the Rays made their startling run to the World Series, the bank opted for the local team over the out-of-town conference.

That’s the essence of the ACC’s challenge as it prepares to play its fourth conference title game — and it’s first in Tampa — since expanding to 12 teams. Can it make enough fans in central and south Florida care, especially if neither of the state’s teams, Miami or Florida State, is playing?

The resounding answer was no in Jacksonville, where the ACC’s crowning event was plagued by declining attendance and drab matchups.

“Tampa will do a terrific job, but the only reason people are going to care is if you have marquee teams playing,” said Rick Jones, who runs Fishbait Marketing and manages the college football and basketball coaches associations. “You look at the conference championship games in the SEC and the Big 12, they’re probably play-in games for the national championship. The ACC may have a four-loss team playing.”

Understanding that matchups are out of the league’s control, the ACC hatched a new marketing plan this year — The Road to Tampa Bay — spearheaded by Michael Kelly, the chief organizer of three Florida-based Super Bowls and a men’s Final Four in Tampa. He joined the ACC as an associate commissioner last year, brought in to essentially fix the league’s championship game.

Working with the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, Kelly has focused on more local promotion, especially at the grassroots level (think youth football), cheaper tickets, more consistency in the look and feel of promotional materials and a greater buy-in from each of the ACC’s 12 schools, which range geographically from Miami to Boston College.

“We’ve got to get to the point where we’re not so matchup sensitive,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a much more aggressive approach and we’ve also got a new community, which gives us a chance to bring the brand to them and better educate them.”

“When you really look at it, this game is still in its infancy,” said John Swofford, the ACC’s commissioner. “We’re looking for the right fit for our league as this game develops, whether it’s one site or a rotation.”

After two years in Tampa, the game moves to Charlotte for 2010 and 2011. “By then, we’ll have seven years to evaluate,” Swofford said. “The success in Tampa and Charlotte will have a lot to do with the future of the game.”

Last year’s ACC championship game between
Boston College and Virginia Tech barely drew
53,000 in Jacksonville’s 77,497- seat
Municipal Stadium.
TV rating
Florida State-Virginia Tech
Wake Forest-Georgia Tech
Boston College-Virginia Tech
Big 12
Team I
Team II
* Includes corporate partners
** Includes suite holders
Notes: The ACCs TV ratings are for broadcasts on ABC. This year, the SEC plays in the Georgia Dome (Atlanta), the ACC in Raymond James Stadium (Tampa) and the Big 12 in Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City).
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research

A 60-foot-tall ACC banner in downtown Tampa would have been a great way for the city to welcome the conference and raise awareness. At least, that’s what an enterprising member of the sports commission thought when he called the bank building and suggested the giant ACC sign.

Even though the idea spawned a Rays banner instead, it reflects the sports commission’s efforts locally to build support for a game that probably won’t feature A-list teams.

While organizers are noncommittal about the prospects of a sellout in 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium, they are certain of halting the downward spiral experienced in Jacksonville. The inaugural game, which included Florida State, drew a respectable 72,749 in Jacksonville’s Municipal Stadium, which holds 77,497. Subsequent games without the Seminoles or Hurricanes slipped at a rate of 10,000 fans a year, bottoming out last year with attendance of 53,212.

Not only does Raymond James Stadium have fewer seats, but those seats will also come at a cheaper price. Tickets for the ACC’s game begin at $25, well below the lowest-priced ticket last year of $65. About 14,000 of the seats at Raymond James Stadium are priced at $25.

The cheapest ticket for the Big 12’s title game is $55, while the SEC’s tickets begin at $70.

With the ticket comes admission to FanFest, where sponsors like Outback, Alltel, Papa John’s, RBC Bank, Geico, EA Sports and Under Armour will have space.

ACC revenue from the game hit $5.7 million in 2005 and dipped to $4.9 million in 2006, according to tax returns, while the 2007 number is expected to be slightly less. That’s well short of the $13.7 million in revenue generated by the SEC and $12 million by the Big 12 from last year’s games. ACC officials are quick to mention that the SEC had a 13-year head start on its game.

The ACC’s marquee game also has done little to enhance the league’s football prestige, especially compared with the other top-level conferences with championship games. The SEC’s game sells out annually, and the Big 12 has sold out its game in eight out of 12 seasons.

“Our goal is to create an incredible atmosphere befitting a BCS conference championship game,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and chief organizer of the game locally. “We’ll benefit from the size of this media market, which is the second-largest in the Southeast, behind Atlanta. This is a great footprint for football.”

There’s more than just chamber-of-commerce optimism behind Higgins’ outlook. He has worked with Kelly to devise a plan that reaches out to restaurants and bars, high schools and youth football organizations, a young professionals organization and even shoppers at the International Plaza mall, where the ACC has a kiosk for ticket sales.

Splitsville, an upscale bowling alley and sports bar in Tampa’s popular Channelside Bay, has hung banners for each of the 12 ACC teams over its lanes and serves drinks with ACC championship coasters. More than 100,000 of those coasters have been distributed to area bars.

“You can’t get a beer in this town without seeing the ACC championship logo,” Higgins said.

Higgins estimates that the sports commission has spent $500,000 on advertising the game, much of it within the broadcast of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ games. Many of the Bucs with ACC ties, like Ronde Barber (Virginia) and Derrick Brooks (Florida State), have starred in spots that run on ACC TV broadcasts and in-stadium video boards at ACC regular-season games.

Higgins’ group also scheduled two local events around the game, another attempt to give the game a relevance to Tampa. A battle of local bands at FanFest before the game will determine which group opens for country music star Blake Shelton during the postgame concert, while Tampa area high school all-stars will play in the stadium after the ACC’s contest.

With 10,000 tickets going to each ACC team and another 2,000 going to the league and its sponsors, that leaves about 43,000 tickets to be sold locally. About 30,000 of those tickets have been sold, leaving 13,000 to sell.

“Some fans will want the tickets for football, but we need to make it relevant to the rest of the marketplace, as well,” Kelly said. “That’s why we’ve tried to make this game a 48-hour celebration that offers people the chance to sample the ACC at many levels and in a much more affordable way.”

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