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A seat at the ACC Tournament is more than connections, more than money it’s dedication.

A seat at the ACC Tournament is more than connections, more than money it’s dedication.

By JOEY JOHNSTON The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. - Mark Whitley, an avid Florida State University basketball fan for two decades, knew he simply couldn’t miss the moment. The ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, long the symbol of ultimate hoops tradition, was coming to Tampa.

One ticket book of 11 tournament games, face value at any seat in the arena, was priced at $363.

But what about the hidden cost? Whitley called Seminole Boosters, the athletic department’s fundraising organization, and asked a direct question.

“I wanted four tickets for me and my family,” said Whitley, a Tallahassee resident and partner in a private equity fund. “I wanted it broken down very specifically. What was it going to take?”

The short answer: Pay up.

Whitley was advised to significantly bump up his annual contribution. He became a Golden Chief (requiring a $6,000 gift). His main perk was a guarantee of having the right to purchase four ACC Tournament tickets.

“It’s worth it to me,” Whitley said. “We may not have the basketball passion of North Carolina or Duke, so I know I’m not having to pay the price that some other fans are.”

The ACC Tournament, which begins Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum, hasn’t held a public sale of tickets since 1966. Each ACC school gets an equal split (actually 11 schools had an allotment of approximately 1,700, while Boston College, the league newcomer, is phased in with a two-thirds share of 1,150 before becoming a full member next season).

Those tickets are then dangled as incentives for each school’s high-end boosters. For ACC powerhouses, that generally means the range of a $10,000 annual donation or $50,000 in lifetime donations just to be considered.

“It’s an incredible social event,” said Clearwater businessman Gary Markel, a Virginia booster who will attend his 38th consecutive ACC Tournament. “You see the same people there every year. People will do what’s necessary to keep going.”

At North Carolina, for example, contributors to the athletic department’s Rams Club are ranked by lifetime giving. ACC tickets are offered to top donors, working down the list, until the supply is exhausted.

The last UNC tickets, located in the nosebleed row of the Forum’s upper-bowl 300 section, went to someone who has given more than $90,000 to the Rams Club, someone who is accustomed to great seats at the Smith Center, UNC’s home court.

“It’s a strong demand every year,” said Karlton Creech, Rams Club director of tickets. “You kind of learn the price of doing business.”

But what about the common basketball fan?

Different Dynamics With Expansion
The calls have come, with increasing regularity, to local organizers. How can I get ACC tickets? Sometimes, they even add this rejoinder: You know, I’d even be willing to pay for them.

The callers are let down gently.

There are no tickets.

“Some people around here have been told ‘no’ for maybe the first time in their lives,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “We’re a big-event town, no question, and people are used to some tickets coming open.

“This event is a different animal.”

ACC associate commissioner Fred Barakat, who joined the league in 1981 after coaching at Fairfield, remembers being puzzled when told about the tournament’s ticket distribution process.

“I remember asking, ‘If you don’t hold a public sale of these tickets, how are you going to fill the building?’” Barakat said. “I guess I was a little naïve to the culture of this league.

“It has become an incredible fundraising device for our schools. I don’t see it ever changing.”

The system has evolved with ACC expansion.

In the old days, it was a tidy eight-way split. Then came FSU’s arrival in 1991-92, cutting the pie into thinner slices and creating a Thursday night play-in game.

In a 12-team league – Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College have been added in the past three seasons – that requires two noon-to-midnight basketball marathons (Thursday and Friday). In the big picture, it also means there are nouveau riche Miami supporters plucking tickets away from Tobacco Road bluebloods.

Longtime ACC fans have showered predictable disgust toward Miami, which was struggling just to fill its ticket allotment this season.

“We all know the ACC expanded primarily because of football,” said Tampa resident Rob Wilde, who received his ACC Tournament tickets through Boston College, his alma mater. “If I’m a basketball junkie and I used to always get my ACC tickets – and now I’m having to scrounge around – I think it would get my nose a little bent out of shape.”

The landscape will change again in 2008 when BC moves to a full ticket allotment and the ACC Tournament shifts to the new NBA arena in Charlotte, N.C., slightly smaller than the Forum.

“Next year will be brutal,” Maryland senior associate athletic director Joe Hull said. “We’ll be squeezed in every way imaginable.”

“The tournament has always been kind of a closed show,” said Wake Forest alumnus Guy Revelle, a Tampa resident who will attend his 18th ACC Tournament. “If you’re in the building, it’s a big thing.”

But there’s also a sense of supply-and-demand uncertainty as the tournament comes to Florida.

Some Fans Take A Pass
Duke has won seven of the last eight ACC Tournaments. Last month, though, the Iron Dukes fundraising organization notified Duke’s Florida alumni that tickets might be available. Several of its regular tournament customers had declined this time, so the minimum donation standard had been temporarily waived.

Officials at North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Virginia also acknowledged they had gone deeper down the list of donors before filling their allotment.

Forty-five of the previous 53 ACC Tournaments were held in North Carolina (21 at Greensboro). Some fans drove home and slept in their own beds. Some showed up and cherry-picked seats from departing fans of eliminated teams.

Tampa requires a different commitment – a plane ticket and a four-night hotel stay. Few fans are going to drive home – or drive in late, hoping to secure weekend seats.

Tournament officials even instituted an unprecedented ticket redistribution plan, getting boosters to sell back unused first-day tickets so local fans could attend (and perhaps avoid some first-day empty seats).

If there are gaps, it appears they will be filled by a different range of school supporters, who are thrilled at their unexpected opportunity.

“This is a huge deal for anyone who has been around ACC basketball,” said Tiffani Sherman, president of the Duke Club of Tampa Bay, who learned only last week that she had secured a ticket.

“It’s an experience you’ll never forget,” said Tampa’s Andrea Schuch, who works in the education department at Lowry Park Zoo. Schuch, who once camped out for six consecutive weeks in Duke’s Krzyzewskiville tent city, got a ticket from her grandfather, an Iron Duke.

The unanswered question: What happens when the traditional ACC fans arrive, then their team loses? Do they unload their tickets and head to the beach or a spring training game? Or do they maintain the famous profile of an ACC Tournament fan (all basketball, all the time), even with warm weather beckoning outside?

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are planning minivacations,” said Dirk Katstra, executive director of the Virginia Athletics Foundation. “It is going to be a different ACC Tournament. But it’s still going to be an extraordinarily hard ticket to get.”

As always.

H.J. Barrett, a dentist and Virginia booster from Falls Church, Va., attended his first ACC Tournament in 1963. Stationed at Fort Bragg, he remembers getting a leave from duty and showing up at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C. He got his championship-game ticket – Duke vs. Wake Forest – from a scalper.

“Cost me 10 bucks. Outrageous!” said Barrett, who will make the pilgrimage to Tampa with Virginia friends.

“It’s all relative, but I guess some parts of this tournament haven’t changed.”

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