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ACC Championship’s historical woes provide further validation to Florida State’s outsized value to the conference

For months Florida State Athletics Director Michael Alford has argued that Florida State deserves a larger share of the ACC’s revenue. His argument has been a simple one: Florida State brings in more television viewers to ACC broadcasts than any other school. Since 2012 only 17 ACC regular-season football games have garnered over 5 million viewers. The Seminoles have played in 12 of them. As Florida State’s official football account tweeted out earlier this week, it has as many 5 million-viewer games as the rest of the ACC combined in 2023. There will be another reminder of the oversized reliance the ACC has on Florida State to maintain it’s relevance when the Seminoles travel to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game this Saturday night.

Charlotte hosting the conference championship game has been a point of contention for Florida State in its increasingly rocky relationship with the ACC. Many Seminole fans point to the fact that Charlotte is only convenient for the Carolina-based schools that have long dominated conference politics. In an era where every other major conference championship game is played in a domed NFL stadium, Charlotte annually welcomes fans with rain and temperatures dipping into the 40s. It sticks out as seemingly another example of the ACC’s out-of-touch leadership just going with the easy option outside their office windows.

This wasn’t always the case. The ACC championship game has been played in Florida six times, with Jacksonville hosting from 2005–2007, Tampa hosting from 2008–2009, and Orlando hosting in 2016.

The inaugural conference championship game in 2005 was Jacksonville between Florida State and Virginia Tech. This game wasn’t quite the monster rematch of a top-ranked Florida State vs. Top-5 Miami the league had envisioned during the mid-2000s expansion but it was still an unquestionable success. Over 72,000 fans packed then-Alltel Stadium to see Florida State knock off #5 Virginia Tech.

The Seminoles wouldn’t make another appearance in a championship game over the next four years as they sank deeper into the late Bowden era. Without Florida State, the crowds at the championship games in Florida grew increasingly sparse. In 2006, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech battled in the rain in front of a half-full stadium. Then the bottom fell out.

The crowd in Jacksonville for the 2007 ACC Championship Game
ESPN

Virginia Tech and Boston College would meet for the 2007 ACC Championship. The ACC claims 53,212 fans attended that day in Jacksonville. The actual butt-in-seat attendance was under 35,000.

Florida State played in Jacksonville twice more during that time span. Two months prior to the infamous 2007 conference title game, the Noles played Alabama in a game that drew over 85,000 fans. The game outdrew that year’s Florida-Georgia attendance and every Jaguars home game that season. In 2009, the Gator Bowl bypassed Clemson and several other ACC schools available in order to select Florida State and secure Bobby Bowden’s final game. The game went on to be the most attended football game in Jacksonville history.

The ACC Championship’s two-year stint in Tampa did nothing to stop the bleeding. The 2008 game saw a rematch between Virginia Tech and Boston College. Despite slashing ticket prices to $25, the attendance was just as bad as the year prior. Perhaps more shocking, was the 2009 game between Clemson and Georgia Tech. Clemson has long been held as the ACC’s other “football school” with a fanbase supposedly as rabid as any in the country. Tampa expected a huge turnout, as it was the Tigers’ first chance to win the ACC in 18 years. Instead, they got the lowest attendance at an ACC Championship game outside of 2020. The official attendance that night was 44,897.

The only time ESPN’s cameras showed a wide shot of the crowd in 2009
ESPN

Outside of a one-year detour to Orlando in 2016 that produced similarly abysmal attendance, the ACC Championship Game has been played in Charlotte since 2010. Attendance picked up in Charlotte, in large part, due to it being an easy drive for Clemson fans as the Tigers became a perennial playoff contender. But unlike the sparse attendance for Clemson’s visits to Florida, Seminole fans still make the trip to Charlotte in force.

Jonathan Loesche/Tomahawk Nation

ACC apologists try to lay the blame for the ACC’s Florida failures at the feet of Florida State and Miami. The go-to line is that if both teams hadn’t fallen so far from their heights, the games in Florida would’ve been a success. In reality, what was shown that schools like Clemson and North Carolina don’t have the dedicated fan bases one would expect of a large university in the South.

The ACC Championship’s failures in Florida have had other, longer-lasting effects. The fiasco fractured the ACC’s relationship with Jacksonville. The city won a fierce bidding war over other cities in the ACC’s footprint, expecting an event that would draw big crowds even without, an annual appearance from Florida State or Miami. Instead, it lost over $1 million on the 2006 championship game alone. After the failures of the 2007 game became apparent the city didn’t bother putting in a bid to continue hosting further games, even on a rotating basis. In 2009, the Gator Bowl ended its 14-year-long relationship as the ACC’s top non-BCS bowl game in favor of mid-tier selections from the SEC and Big Ten.

More disastrously, the championship game’s performance sullied the conference’s reputation amongst bowl organizers in Florida, the same organizations that helped stage the conference title games. The Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, and the Reliaquest Bowl in Tampa are arguably the three biggest bowl games outside of the New Year’s Six. Along with the Gator Bowl ending its relationship with the ACC, the Citrus and Reliaquest Bowls never seriously considered replacing the SEC or Big Ten for the ACC as one of their bowl tie-ins. The ACC was forced to strike a deal with Orlando’s secondary bowl, now the Pop Tarts Bowl, in order to still have a bowl presence in Florida. The conference only got back into more prestigious bowl games thanks to shared agreements with the Big Ten and Notre Dame. Those bowl games only had to take ACC teams certain years, and even then, they could bypass an ACC team for Notre Dame if the Irish were available. Since the ACC entered into a bowl-sharing agreement with Notre Dame in 2014, the only time a Florida-based bowl game has passed on Notre Dame for an ACC school was last year when the Cheez-It Bowl took Florida State. The Gator Bowl immediately snapped up the Irish and garnered the bowl game’s biggest crowd since Bobby Bowden’s final game.

Florida State has brought up television ratings a lot when discussing its relationship with the ACC. However, the Seminoles bring much more than just TV viewers. Florida State was the reason Jacksonville and Tampa both badly wanted the ACC Championship game. Instead, they got 35,000 fans to watch Boston College and Wake Forest. Bowl organizers sign deals with the ACC in the hopes of getting Florida State or Notre Dame once every few years, knowing they may get stuck selling only 20,000 tickets in other years. Ultimately the Seminoles bring organizations and money to the table for the ACC that otherwise wouldn’t be available.

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