by Fred Seely
Jacksonville’s tenuous hold on the Atlantic Coast Conference football championship game has been challenged by a new rival that wants the game as soon as the contract is up for bid.
A non-profit coalition of Tampa sports organizations, government agencies and businesses has reserved the city’s Raymond James Stadium for early December dates from 2008-10.
“We will aggressively go after the game,” said attorney Jeff Adams, the chairman of the Tampa Bay Sports Authority. “We have proven that we can host big events and we can host big parties. The ACC is perfect for us.”
Jacksonville has had the first two championships and last year’s game created a dilemma for both the Gator Bowl Association — which puts on and markets the game — and the conference. The city had a hard time selling tickets for ACC division champs Georgia Tech and Wake Forest and the conference forced the Gator Bowl to take Georgia Tech for its New Year’s Day game even after it produced a weak performance in a 9-6 loss at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
The Gator Bowl’s position remains the same: more tickets need to be sold locally.
“Based on last year’s attendance, the conference only gave us a one-year extension on the game, which opened up the thought process in other cities,” said GBA President Rick Catlett, adding he is aware of Tampa’s interest in the game as well as potentially Charlotte’s. “Unless we sell it out, the conference will bid out the game and Tampa and Charlotte will be back in the hunt.”
The association’s 25-member committee has taken the lead role in selling tickets to that game as well as the Sept. 29 Alabama-Florida State game, which the GBA is underwriting, and the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl.
A one-year contract for this year’s ACC game was granted in February and the game will be on Dec. 1. The league’s commissioner, John Swofford, said he will invite bids after that.
Michael Kelly, who ran the 2005 Super Bowl here, has been hired as the ACC’s assistant commissioner for football operations. Kelly joined the ACC after running this year’s Super Bowl in Miami.
Jacksonville originally seemed to be the only logical place as the apparent main contenders had flaws. Charlotte’s weather in early December is unpredictable and Orlando lacks a quality stadium. Tampa gave the original bid only minor consideration as it preferred to emphasize efforts to get future Super Bowls.
But the city’s success in hosting the ACC basketball tournament in March, and the desire for more plums to fill hotel rooms, seem to have changed things.
“We’ve done almost everything here and we’ve done it well,” said Adams. “We’ve had Super Bowls, the (basketball) Final Four and the ACC tournament. Next year we have an NCAA basketball opening round and a real jewel: the ‘Frozen Four.’” That’s the NCAA ice hockey tournament, which will be played in the 20,000-seat St. Pete Forum.
ACC officials wouldn’t speak on the record but seemed to welcome competition for Jacksonville, particularly from a city with more than twice as many hotel rooms and better airline connections.
“Tampa has become a true major-league market,” said one highly-placed ACC source.
Catlett said the key to keeping the game is ticket sales, regardless of who plays in the game. He said before the inaugural game in 2005, local fans bought 30,000 tickets before it was known that Florida State and Virginia Tech would play in the game. The next year, local sales dipped to around 17,000 before the teams were announced.
“We do not want to become the Birmingham of the SEC (Southeastern Conference),” said Catlett. The first SEC title games were played in Birmingham in 1992 and ‘93. The next year the game moved to Atlanta where it’s been played since.
Catlett said the ACC did not hold it against Jacksonville that two of the league’s three smallest schools played in last year’s game, nor did the league hold the weather against the city. Slow ticket sales, he said, were the driving factor behind the one-year renewal and his association’s urgency in selling tickets to the Dec. 1 game, regardless who’s playing.
“This is their championship, it’s a big deal to them,” he said. “The question is: was this year an anomaly? They clearly want the game in Jacksonville, they clearly want a permanent home for the game. If you like games like this or the Florida State-Alabama game and want to get a BCS (Bowl Championship Series) game down the road, we have to buy tickets.”
Catlett said ticket renewals are currently at about the same mark as this time last year and they go on sale to the general public Aug. 1. He said the GBA needs to sell about 20,000 more tickets to the game before the end of October to send the right message to the ACC.