The ACC men’s basketball tournament comes to Atlanta for the sixth time this week, the first time to Philips Arena, amid indications that it’ll be even harder to lure the event back in the future.
The ACC’s footprint will expand with the impending additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the league, opening new options — such as New York’s Madison Square Garden — as potential hosts for the tournament in the years that it strays from its North Carolina roots.
“We may have different points in the footprint now to take a look at and consider,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “It does become more competitive, but Atlanta is such an important market to the conference that I’d be surprised if the future didn’t mean that we would be back to Atlanta with the tournament.”
The tournament is committed to Greensboro, N.C., in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and the conference plans to send out a request for proposals (RFP) for the 2016 through 2021 events in a month or so, said Karl Hicks, the ACC associate commissioner for men’s basketball.
Atlanta will respond to the RFP with a bid for one or more years, said Dan Corso, executive director of the Atlanta Sports Council.
That raises the stakes for this year’s tournament, which runs Thursday through March 11.
“I will say this, and I have said this to [local organizers]: This year for Atlanta is real important because we’re in a venue we haven’t been in before,” Hicks said. “We’re excited about it; we feel like it’s going to be a home run. But in order for our administrators and fans and ADs and the leadership of the conference to also feel what we feel, we need to hit the home run this year.”
Said Corso: “With the expansion of the conference that will bring more competition into play [for future bidding], we’ve got to laser focus on this year’s tournament.”
The ACC tournament was held in Atlanta for the first time in 1983 at the Omni, the downtown arena that was imploded in 1997 and replaced as the Hawks’ home by Philips Arena. The ACC tournament also was played at the Omni in 1985 and ’89. When the event returned to Atlanta in 2001 and 2009, it was played in the massive Georgia Dome, drawing tournament-record crowds in ’01 and considerably smaller crowds in ’09.
“The people at the Dome did a terrific job working with us,” Swofford said, “but with that said, we received a lot of feedback that a lot of our fans’ preference was to be in a standard type of basketball arena, just in terms of atmosphere and sight lines.”
So the ACC, which awarded the 2012 tournament to the Georgia Dome in 2006, decided three years later to shift it to cozier Philips Arena.
“The fans are right on top of the court, which is kind of what we’re used to having,” Hicks said. “The ACC tournament is known for its energy, and that was the driving force behind the decision to move to Philips.”
Atlanta’s next bid also will include Philips Arena as the site, Corso said.
Swofford said he expects the conference’s general philosophy in awarding the event to remain the same as for the past decade or so — “moving the tournament around some to be in different parts of our geographic footprint ... while maintaining North Carolina, either Greensboro or Charlotte, as sort of the home base for the tournament.”
From its inception in 1954 — one year after the conference was formed — through 2000, the tournament was played in North Carolina 41 times and elsewhere only six times (three each in Atlanta and Landover, Md.). From 2001 through 2015, the tournament was (or will be) played in North Carolina 10 times (Greensboro eight times and Charlotte twice) and elsewhere five times (Atlanta thrice, Washington and Tampa once apiece).
Hicks said all cities that have hosted the tournament in the past decade plan to participate in the next round of bidding. He expects other cities to bid as well, but wouldn’t name them.
“Adding two schools to the north of where we are certainly will add to the menu of places we would consider taking the tournament,” Hicks said.
He deferred to Swofford on the question of whether Madison Square Garden is one such place.
Said Swofford: “It’s the most famous arena in the world, as they say, in a great city, and we’ll have a school with strong ties, in Syracuse, to New York City, but I think that’s premature. The Garden hosts the Big East tournament right now, and they’ve had a commitment to the Big East for a long time, and we’ll have to see what the future holds and if that changes at all.”
The Big East’s contract with Madison Square Garden runs through 2016. An arena being built in Brooklyn also has been mentioned as a possible site for the ACC tournament.
Philips Arena’s seating capacity of 19,500 is comparable to several venues where the tournament has been played since 2005 — Verizon Center in Washington, Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte and the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Philips Arena has about 3,500 fewer seats than Greensboro Coliseum.
Swofford said he expects this week’s tournament to sell out, although some schools still have tickets available.
Atlanta organizers expect the tournament to continue to make periodic visits here but know the competition will be intense.
“Anytime there’s added competition, there’s cause to assess how you handle what you do,” Corso said. “But I think Atlanta and our history with the conference and with major events like this, quite frankly, stands on its own. I think we can rely on that history and what we have infrastructure-wise to pursue future opportunities.
“Our message to commissioner Swofford and the leadership of the Atlantic Coast Conference is that when they take their basketball tournament outside the state of North Carolina, we’d like them to consider Atlanta first.”