By JOE HENDERSON
TAMPA, Fla. - When the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament began Thursday, we must admit it was hard not to think of everything that could go wrong. That’s our job as professional cynics, and bringing this event here was fertile ground for disaster scenarios.
You consider the history of this tournament, and then pile on a passion that is difficult to translate if you haven’t grown up with it. You plop that Tobacco Road mania in the middle of Suntan Alley for four days and nights, a place unfamiliar with all the fuss it could have been bad.
But it wasn’t.
It was tremendous.
It was an economic success.
It was an esoteric success.
“I think we surprised people,” said Jeff Adams, a St. Petersburg lawyer who helped lead the effort to bring the tournament here, an event that ended Sunday when top-seeded North Carolina beat North Carolina State 89-80 in the championship game at the Forum.
Such civic pats on the back are standard procedure after a big event leaves town, and frankly, they aren’t always merited. This time, though, they are.
“At this point in time I don’t know what [could be improved] about what they did here,” ACC Commissioner John Swafford said.
“I’m sure there is something because you don’t put on an event of this nature where there isn’t something that could be tweaked. But it hasn’t come up to me yet. It’s unrealistic to think it would be nothing, but whatever it is, it must not be very big”
The scalpers might disagree.
You heard the usual sort of grumbling leading up to the tournament about the notion of bringing the ACC’s signature event to a city consumed this time of year with beaches, baseball and the Bucs. Actually, the Bucs don’t count because we’re always consumed with the Bucs.
The complaints came mostly from sportswriters, who – I can attest to this – are really good at that. Mostly it was harmless stuff. There were the expected playful jabs about Tampa being a football town. There were even complaints that the tournament got swallowed because there is too much to do here.
We can live with that.
Saturday night along Channelside was crammed with basketball fans. Restaurants were full. Hotels were booked. The games were great: many upsets, three overtime games. Classics.
Scalpers weren’t happy because there wasn’t a mob outside the Forum willing to sacrifice its firstborn for two in the nosebleed section. That sometimes happens in some of the traditional spots for this tournament, especially Greensboro, N.C.
But I was at the tournament last year in Greensboro and there were visible pockets of empty seats after teams got eliminated and their fans drove home. The games at the Forum were mostly full, particularly with North Carolina fans.
“It’s not like you can only have a good atmosphere in North Carolina,” said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, formerly of the University of South Florida. “They had a great attention to detail. It was a great environment for the tournament.”
But will it be back?
Hard to say.
When ACC people fly out today, they’ll see a huge billboard erected by the Tampa Bay Sports Commission off the interstate leading to Tampa International Airport. It has a simple message: “Commissioner, We Want You Back!”
Next year it will be in Charlotte. The tournament was committed through 2015 before it even got here, mostly to Greensboro and Atlanta.
The size of the Forum could hurt plans to return it here.
Organizers squeezed 22,269 seats out of the Forum, which is about 800 less than in Greensboro. The games in Atlanta are played in the Georgia Dome, which can accommodate crowds double the size of here.
At the current price of $363 for a book of tickets, losing just 800 seats represents more than $290,000 in lost income for the conference. The actual amount is far greater, though.
For the right to buy ACC tickets through conventional means, one generally must donate large sums of money to a school. Losing even 800 seats works out to nearly 70 lost tickets for each conference school. Since the minimum lifetime donation to get a ticket from a school like North Carolina this year was about $90,000, do the math.
“Every ticket is important. We understand that,” Swafford said.
But he understands something else.
“What’s unique here is the weather, the water and the fan fest outside [the Forum]. It’s quite different than any of our other locales,” Swafford said. “It’s been very enjoyable.”
What did we say at the start? We were worried about everything that could go wrong?
I mean, what were we thinking? This event has come and gone. Maybe every single thing didn’t go right, but it was pretty darn close.