ACC's FanFest offers games outside the arena

On a basketball court set up under a large tent outside Philips Arena, fans were shooting 3-pointers late Thursday morning. Nearby, a 5-year-old boy in a North Carolina uniform posed for a photo next to an ACC championship trophy. Mascots of various teams mingled.

A spring-like morning — sunny, 73 degrees, an occasional slight breeze — greeted the opening of ACC FanFest.

The festival, held annually in conjunction with the league’s basketball tournament, was moved outdoors this time, setting up shop along Philips Drive, next to the arena.

FanFest was held inside the Georgia World Congress Center when the tournament was played at the Georgia Dome in 2009, and the ACC knew the move outdoors would put the attraction at the mercy of the weather. But league officials considered the risk worth taking in order to place the attraction just outside the arena doors.

“You can’t hit a home run unless you swing for the fences,” said Karl Hicks, the ACC’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball, during a pre-tournament visit to Atlanta.

FanFest staffers counted 858 people at Thursday morning’s opening, most of them wearing shirts or caps that announced their allegiance to a particular school, and expect as many as 3,500 to fill the festival area a bit deeper into the tournament.

Whether the ACC’s luck with the weather extends into Day 2 is iffy. The forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of rain Friday morning.

“We need the weather to hold off when the [top] seeds play,” Hicks said as he surveyed the scene Thursday.

FanFest admission is free, and the attraction is open for at least two hours preceding each tournament session.

As the noon tipoff of the opening Maryland-Wake Forest game approached, parents of two young Terps fans were having difficulty prying the kids away from the interactive games and into the arena.

The fan area is set up with a band stage on one end (for live music from local bands), a merchandise sales tent on the other end (T-shirts $25 apiece) and the basketball court in the center. Lining each side are about 20 tents, where fans can get their photos taken or their faces painted, get autographs from former ACC stars, play games, buy food or engage with ACC corporate sponsors.

“The idea is to market FanFest to everybody in Atlanta so that those who don’t have a ticket to the basketball can still come down and feel a part of the atmosphere associated with the tournament,” said Dan Corso, executive director of the Atlanta Sports Council.

Hicks said the “upgraded” attraction is an example of how sports events must “deliver more” to attract fans in difficult economic times.

“Fans have an expectation of that,” he said. “You’re competing for fans that have less resources than they had a few years [ago].”

FanFest is scheduled to be open Friday from 10 a.m. until noon and 5-7 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.; and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.

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