By Dave Glenn and staff
May 24, 2004 The days of charting the future of the ACC on a cocktail napkin in a smoke-filled room are a part of the league's quaint history. You definitely have arrived as one of the nation's super conferences when television networks are lining up to throw more than $40 million annually at your 12-team football league, all the while knowing that at some point they likely will have to show a live shot of half-empty Wallace Wade Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. The ACC is all grown up, and you need to spend only a few minutes at the league's annual spring meetings at the Amelia Island (Fla.) Ritz-Carlton to understand how things have changed since the fateful meeting at the Sedgefield Inn near Greensboro more than a half-century ago. It's like comparing the Andy Griffith Show to CSI, or better still, a blackboard to a Power Point presentation. When the proposals to host the ACC football championship game finally arrive at the league's Greensboro office by the June 30 deadline, there will be no shortage of colorful flow charts and numbers with multiple commas. They will come from trendy vacation destinations (Orlando) and world nerve centers (Washington, D.C., New York). Yet the proposal that will make the most sense (and dollars) will be submitted by a city that offers the ACC a chance to market its brand without the trappings of Mouse Ears or skyscrapers, a city that has grown much like the league over the last decade. "The championship game is Jacksonville's to lose," one veteran ACC broadcaster said recently, a sentiment echoed by more than one league official at the spring meetings. Though nine sites declared interest in playing host to the inaugural title game, it's pretty clear that this is a two-city race. There's Jacksonville, with its city-owned Alltel Stadium situated on the banks of the St. John's River, and there's Charlotte, the geographic and financial center of the 12-team ACC. Inextricably connected through their decade-old NFL franchises the Jaguars and Panthers Jacksonville and Charlotte can offer the ACC state-of-the-art stadiums to host a game league officials hope will bring $10-12 million into their coffers. Beyond the stadiums, both cities have close ties to the league, nurtured through years of working together. Jacksonville, with Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett serving as its point man, has provided the league with a New Year's Day bowl home through its days of football growing pains. Charlotte, home to Raycom Sports and its ambassador Ken Haines, has been a second home for the league's financial bellcow, the ACC Tournament. If the decision to host the behemoth football title game came down to relationships and the ability to deliver on promises, Jacksonville and Charlotte would be locked in a dead heat. But it isn't. And here are a few reasons why on Dec. 3, 2005, the first ACC title game broadcast nationally on ABC (or ESPN) will be played in Jacksonville. Among its many advantages, Jacksonville's strongest is its organization and philosophy, aided significantly by the fact that the city owns the facility. It began with the decision to turn over all football-related negotiations to Catlett, a savvy businessman with political clout, charm and the ear of ACC commissioner John Swofford. Catlett's personal-relations skills are unsurpassed, whether it's teeing it up on the golf course with coaches, athletic directors and TV executives, or hosting daily cocktail parties at the league meetings. When asked if Catlett was the league's unofficial hospitality chairman at Amelia Island, where everything from ice cream to frozen fruit libations are served up poolside from the Gator Bowl tent, Swofford said: "There's nothing 'unofficial' about it." Since the birth of the Bowl Championship Series and its predecessors, the Gator Bowl has provided the ACC with a financial safety net. It has offered a lucrative payday for the league and a place for its No. 2 team to gain national exposure on New Year's Day. Clemson, North Carolina, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland and N.C. State have enjoyed the Jan. 1 version of Jacksonville hospitality, which has been fine-tuned because of the city's years as the host of the annual Florida-Georgia game. Thanks to the bowl's tie-in with the Big East, ACC newcomers Virginia Tech and Miami are no postseason strangers to Alltel Stadium, either. Clearly, there's a built-in comfort when it comes to the ACC's relationship with Jacksonville and Catlett. They offer a proven product when it comes to hosting a big game. But in fairness, the winning bid for the league title game is mainly about finances, and this is where Jacksonville has its most decided advantage. It begins with the city, which looks at its partnership in practical terms. By offering the seed money through the tourist development council to bring the game to town, Jacksonville realizes it will reap the reward of bed-tax and restaurant dollars, parking, concessions, novelty sales and sponsorships. In short, the city understands that it must give in order to receive. Couple the city's money say, in the $300,000 ballpark with a similar amount from the Florida Sports Foundation, and you have the baseline for an attractive financial guarantee that will be returned multiple times over by incoming revenues. That kind of arrangement will be hard for anyone to beat. The Florida Sports Foundation helps make Jacksonville's bid unique. The independent group uses state dollars, collected through a 10-percent share on the sales of sports license plates, to promote events that generate an influx of out-of-state dollars. Larry Pendleton's group is set up to provide Florida cities with $500,000 to host a Super Bowl (Jacksonville will do that in January 2005) and $400,000 to host a BCS national championship game (Miami will do that in January 2005).
An ACC title game would fall in line nicely with the foundation's mission, though there's no guarantee that large amounts of out-of-state dollars will be there, as long as FSU and Miami are in opposite ACC divisions and the favorites to be the most regular opponents in the league finale. To better understand the advantages of a Jacksonville proposal, Charlotte's situation deserves a closer examination. For starters, Charlotte's stadium is owned by the NFL's Panthers and more specifically the Richardson family, which leaned heavily on personal seat licensing (PSLs) to foot the bill. With the purchase of a PSL to guarantee season tickets for the Panthers, patrons are entitled to use those seats for any event held at the stadium. How to deal with those license-holders is a big concern. Would there be enough available seats for the league to allocate to each school? How would the title-game ticket needs of a Miami-FSU final be met if, say, a North Carolina school was in the title hunt right down to the final week of the season? Would a one-week window allow the league time to move enough tickets to guarantee a sellout?
In reality, it will be a difficult sell for Charlotte unless it can get license-holders to relinquish their rights in advance. Next to TV dollars, club- or premium-seat ticket sales are the most lucrative money-makers. Carolina Panthers Stadium Corp. president Jon Richardson told the Charlotte Observer that hosting the championship game would have to benefit all stakeholders in order to work. And that is a problem unto itself, based on the various entities involved in luring an event to the Queen City. In addition to the Richardsons, Charlotte's complex hierarchy includes the tourist development council, Charlotte Sports Commission and Center City Partners. That doesn't include Haines, the Raycom CEO who also is the president of the Continental Tire Bowl, which is played at the stadium. Nor does it include city and Mecklenburg county government officials, who would be asked to come through with some type of support to make the bid viable. That is a lot of masters to be served, compared to Jacksonville's city-generated bid through Catlett. "That could be an advantage for (Jacksonville), no question about that," Charlotte Sports Commission executive director Jeff Beaver told the Observer. " We can only do what we can do. We can't worry about what other people can do." Even if the Richardsons come through with some financial concessions that would enable the community to benefit from bringing the title game to town, it's unlikely that they would lease the stadium for free. Haines, who has turned the Continental Tire Bowl into a rousing success in two years, dismisses those obstacles. "I think we'll be looking for ways to solicit revenue that can overcome any potential expense liabilities that we have that exceed those of another city," Haines said. Despite stadiums built at the same time and with similar amenities, there is one area that Charlotte will not be able to overcome. "With everything equal," Catlett said, "we've got more seats than they do." Alltel Stadium can accommodate seating for 82,000, while its counterpart tops out at around 72,000. At a minimum of $50 a ticket, the disparity in seats alone is worth half-a-million dollars. That doesn't take into account that a portion of those seats would be premium seating, at a higher dollar value. Jacksonville has other built-in advantages. The average temperature in the River City during the first weekend in December is a high of 70 and a low of 52, compared to 57/38 in North Carolina. Charlotte once had 10 inches of snow on the ground on that date. The only white ground-covering at that time of year on the First Coast can be found in bunkers or on the beach. With corporate partnerships becoming increasingly important to sustaining daily operating expenses in conference offices around the country, existing relationships should not be overlooked. It can't hurt that ACC partner Alltel has its name on Jacksonville's stadium. Meanwhile, Bank of America which has replaced Ericsson as the name of Charlotte's stadium is a direct competitor with ACC corporate partner RBC. A careful look at the subcommittee of ACC athletic directors appointed to oversee the site selection also might reveal a subtle advantage for Jacksonville. The four-member committee FSU's Dave Hart, Georgia Tech's Dave Braine, Wake Forest's Ron Wellman and N.C. State's Lee Fowler is comprised of expansion advocates who usually are philosophically aligned with Swofford. That's significant because, throughout the expansion process, Catlett was kept abreast of the negotiations, in part because of the potential impact on the ACC/Big East-affiliated Gator Bowl. An expansion advocate from the start, Catlett also made it known from the early going that Jacksonville would roll out the red carpet for the opportunity to host a league title game. Catlett's desire and commitment to the title game is so strong that he even has agreed in principle should Jacksonville get the game to either relinquish the Gator Bowl's No. 1 selection of an ACC team after the BCS, or at the least reach a working agreement with the Peach Bowl to allow the Atlanta game more control of the selection process. Such an agreement likely would prevent the ACC title game loser from returning to Jacksonville for a bowl game three weeks later. The ACC's desire to sign the winning bidder to a two-year deal with a two-year option (and possibly a third) matches perfectly with Catlett's plan. Like the league, he's closely monitored the Big 12 and SEC championships, traveling to both games in recent years in preparation for Jacksonville's proposal. Catlett would like nothing more than for Jacksonville to become a permanent home for the championship, noting that the SEC title game didn't take off until it stayed in Atlanta. For now, though, he'd settle for the league's initial blessing, and run with it. Brackman: Decision Day Looming N.C. State basketball signee Andrew Brackman seemed relatively calm and collected as he readied himself for his high school graduation ceremony in late May. It was a big night, one he likely would remember for years to come. Other than finding a cap and gown that fit his long, lean body, Brackman wasn't sweating much. The top high school baseball and basketball player in Ohio, Brackman has mastered the art of multi-tasking. His peers have come to enjoy his easygoing demeanor, and his teammates know he's reliable, whether it's at the free throw line in the closing seconds or atop the mound in the late innings. Given all he's accomplished in his prep career, about the only question his friends had on graduation night was if Brackman was picking up multiple diplomas. Major league scouts have plenty of questions about Brackman, a senior at Cincinnati's Moeller High who has signed to play both baseball and basketball for the Wolfpack. One of the most intriguing athletes in the Class of 2004, Brackman combines a low-90s fastball and a power breaking ball with his willowy 6-9, 210-pound frame. As the June 7-8 draft draws near, professional baseball organizations aren't the only ones wondering what's next. Entering his senior year at Moeller, Brackman was considered mostly an ace pitcher who also could play a little hoops. He had been recruited by Division I basketball schools but quickly matured from a mid-major talent to an ACC-caliber prospect. He was voted the MVP of the GSK Holiday Invitational in Raleigh and averaged 20 points and six rebounds for Moeller, staking his claim as the state's best prep player, with a good package of low-post moves as well as advanced face-up skills. "I was impressed with his improvement," PrepStars.com guru Brick Oettinger said. "As a junior, he was second banana on his high school team to (Xavier signee) Josh Duncan, and things really flip-flopped this year. When he came to the Raleigh tournament, it was clear that he was the standout. He had grown some more and gotten stronger, while his game had improved significantly." Last fall, PrepStars.com ranked Brackman No. 152 in his class. He climbed to No. 43 in the website's final rankings of the Class of 2004. Brackman's considerable jump is noteworthy by any measure, but in a year that boasts one of the deepest crops of prep hoops talent ever, it is a testament to his hard work and development as an all-around player. "He catches tough passes and is a very good passer himself," Oettinger said. "If you back off him, he can make a three-pointer. He reminds me in that respect of (former North Carolina forward) Joe Wolf, who played a long time in the NBA." Brackman's improvement on the hardwood made him more attractive to larger college programs, including Herb Sendek's at N.C. State. It also gave the school's baseball staff, which previously had shown interest, a new angle in its attempt to sign him. When Sendek agreed to allow Brackman to play both sports, the player's decision was simple. "It was where I wanted to be," Brackman said. "Both coaches were food friends, and I was positive they'll make time for me to do what I need to do to play both sports." With State's basketball and baseball programs working in unison, Brackman made his choice, opting for State over a number of strong schools, including Georgia Tech, whose baseball program was reluctant to allow him to play basketball. "Herb and his staff have been very fair with us from the start," N.C. State baseball recruiting coordinator Billy Jones said. "We've been in this together as far as the recruitment of Andrew, and we anticipate things running smoothly as he juggles both sports here during his career." That is, if he ever steps foot on State's campus. Brackman's baseball stock has risen along with his standing as a basketball player. Moeller's hoops schedule and a bout with shoulder tendinitis prevented him from participating in action on the diamond until early April, but it didn't show. His fastball registered near 90 mph in his first outing, and he touched 92 mph as his arm loosened later in the season. Brackman's out pitch is a high-70s knuckle-curveball with 12-to-6, downward action. His changeup is rudimentary and needs refining, but the same can be said for most high school pitchers. As evidenced by his basketball accomplishments, Brackman is unusually coordinated and agile for a player his size. Thumb through scouting reports, and you'll read a number of different opinions on his release point and secondary pitches, but invariably one word will arise in each of them: projectable. Athletic, 6-9 pitchers are a rare commodity, and scouts drool over Brackman's potential, if he ever dedicates himself to developing as a pitcher. Some say his fastball could reach velocities regularly in the mid-90s, and at 7-0, his projected height, the downward plane on his pitches could make him a formidable middle-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues. "What he is is a big, right-handed pitcher who is very projectable as far as having a great career both at the college and the pro levels," Jones said. "He's a guy who can throw between 90-93 with a feel for a breaking pitch, and when he releases the ball he's 50 feet from the plate. It's amazing." Brackman is ranked as the top high school prospect in Ohio and could be drafted as early as the third round. But while his versatility gained him acclaim in high school and heavy attention from colleges, whether or not he will commit to a pro career in baseball will have a more significant impact on his draft status. "When you're dealing with a two-sport athlete, the most important thing that needs to be considered is the commitment the individual is going to make to baseball," one major league scouting director said. "It just comes down to personal relationships that you have with the family and the individual. You hope that the person shows the commitment to stick with baseball and the potential to play your game and dedicate himself to improving." As if scouting a high school athlete did not depend on enough intangible factors, Brackman's case is even more nebulous. Along with trying to predict how hard he'll throw and how healthy his arm will remain, major league organizations have to gauge how hard it will be or how much it will cost to persuade Brackman to trade in his hightops for spikes for good. Less than a month before the draft, rumors floated through scouting circles that it would require a seven-figure signing bonus to lure Brackman away from his commitment to play both sports for the Wolfpack. Last year the average signing bonus paid to the 27 players who signed as third-round picks was slightly less than $500,000. Despite his upside, Brackman lacks polish. And in an era when organizations are becoming increasingly frugal with bonus budgets and less willing to drop hefty sums on high school pitchers, it's unlikely that Brackman will garner a seven-figure signing bonus. That means he could plummet in the draft, as teams opt not to take a chance on selecting him, only to see him head off for school without signing. Or clubs could choose to exercise a clause implemented by Major League Baseball. When dealing with players who are established as legitimate two-sport athletes, MLB provides an insurance policy of sorts. Teams have the option of spreading signing bonus payments over a five-year span. The organization can backload the bonus to avoid dishing out big-time dollars up front, thus serving as security against a player taking the money and then turning his focus to the other sport. The policy also protects teams that draft a two-sport player who gets injured while playing the second sport. "It protects the club if there is an injury that is incurred in the other sport that hinders them from playing baseball at the pro level," a scouting director said. "You have to understand that a lot of the players you're dealing with aren't players who are used to failing, and when most players go out and perform (professionally) in the first few years, they encounter new challenges and there will be some failure. And any time you're dealing with failure when you're not accustomed to it, there's a draw to go back to the other sport." As a pitcher, Brackman could throw bullpen sessions on intramural fields, work on endurance while running suicides on the basketball court, and improve his strength in the weight room with his basketball teammates. While pitching doesn't require less work than playing an every-day position, it is more specialized. Coaches concede that Brackman could split his time between the hardwood in the fall and winter and the diamond in the spring and summer and still progress in both sports, albeit in a scenario that's less than ideal. "He has really balanced it all very well," said Moeller baseball coach Mike Cameron, who has produced Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin from his program. "He has not really put in the time in the offseason, working on his strength and mechanics and conditioning. When he does, the sky's the limit, and that's where I see him playing basketball has held him back." Obviously, Brackman's options are numerous. As he strolled across the floor during his graduation ceremony in late May, his head likely was filled with thoughts pulling him a number of different ways. But as he closed his high school career, he spoke with conviction that Wolfpack hoops fans hope is steadfast. "I want to play basketball," Brackman said. "I've already established that, and I don't think anything will get me away from playing basketball. I've worked too hard, and when you're talking about the ACC, you're one step away from the NBA."
Alan Matthews, Baseball America
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