To understand the plight the ACC faces headed into championship game weekend, let us go back to last season.
Florida State played a 6-6 Georgia Tech team, representing the Coastal Division only because Miami was ineligible. Interest waned. Large swaths of empty blue seats shown on television essentially flipped the conversation from the players on the field to the issues the ACC faced off the field in trying to sell tickets to a game that lacked both national and regional interest.
The league announced a crowd of 64,778, but Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte only looked half-full. Florida State won, but the school lost money on the game because it did not sell its complete ticket allotment, underscoring once again how matchup-sensitive this game has become.
Now let us take a look at today, the start of championship week in the ACC. The league has Florida State making a return trip as the No. 1 team in the country after years and years of waiting to be relevant nationally. On the other side is Duke, one of the best stories in college football.
Interest should be high.
However, the Noles are nearly 30-point favorites and the expectation is for another blowout win in a season full of Florida State blowout wins. Duke never has come close to upsetting Florida State, losing all 18 previous matchups by an average of 34 points. While the league has been ripped in the past for having an irrelevant game, it is getting ripped today for featuring the undisputed No. 1 team in America in such a lopsided matchup.
Of the four championship games among the power conferences this weekend, the ACC has the worst game. So that leaves many to wonder once again what type of crowd will show up Saturday in Charlotte. Will Florida State fans travel, knowing a trip to Pasadena, Calif., looms on the horizon? Will Duke fans travel the short distance from Durham to see what could be an ugly loss, just to say they were a part of history?
ACC officials would not hazard a guess on potential attendance, but they are certainly aware that interest might be as low as it was last season. Of course, attendance issues are nothing new for the ACC championship game. Tampa and Jacksonville proved to be bad choices to host the game. The low point came in 2008, when 27,360 showed up to watch Boston College and Virginia Tech in Tampa.
Charlotte has been better, despite what unfolded last season. More than 70,000 fans went to the game in 2010 and 2011, but the matchups then featured three league powers in competitive games – Virginia Tech, Clemson and Florida State.
The last two seasons have not featured matchups anybody wants to see, though Duke and Florida State are the two most deserving teams to make the game. Questions have been raised about whether the league would be better off on campus sites, but that is not a topic of discussion in the ACC office. Moving to campus sites is not a complete remedy. Look at the poor attendance Stanford had last season in its on-campus Pac-12 title game.
The Big Ten title game also suffered attendance-wise last year, when neither Nebraska nor Wisconsin had any relevance nationally.
One change has been made to avoid the same issue Florida State faced a year ago. In October, the league voted to reduce the ticket allotment requirement for each school headed to the ACC championship game from 10,000 tickets to 5,500 tickets.
Both schools believe they will be able to sell this allotment. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said there was a lot of excitement in Tallahassee about the game.
“I promise you, if there's five people in the stands or it's sold out, we're going to be there and play, I promise you that,” Fisher said. “I think it'll be a tremendous following.”
Duke had already sold out several of its ticket packages Sunday night, and coach David Cutcliffe has urged Blue Devils fans to make the 140-mile trip by the “thousands and thousands.”
“Our last two home games have been full houses with people that were really cranked up,” Cutcliffe said. “[Charlotte is] obviously a great geographic location for Duke fans. Last year, we had probably 25,000 Duke fans at the Belk Bowl. So I certainly think we can match that in this circumstance.”
There is no doubt the ACC needs more fans in the seats this year to keep the focus Saturday on the game itself. If there is a lackluster showing and a lackluster game, the ACC is going to be faced with the same old questions.