TAMPA — With each crank of a Raymond James Stadium turnstile on Saturday, ACC and bay area officials alike couldn't hide their enthusiasm and, frankly, their relief.
The last of two scheduled ACC Championship Games here was far more successful than the first.
Georgia Tech and Clemson drew an announced 57,227 —that's the tickets that were sold and distributed. Last year's Virginia Tech-Boston College game had an announced 53,927. But Saturday's actual turnstile count, according to the Tampa Sports Authority, was 42,815, up markedly from 27,360 last year.
"This is a very strong showing," ACC associate commissioner Michael Kelly said.
He pointed out that the regular-season meeting in Atlanta between the schools drew an announced 52,029 in the 55,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium on Sept. 10. Atlanta and Clemson, S.C., are about a two-hour drive apart.
The title game now moves to Charlotte, N.C., for two years.
After five years (the first three in Jacksonville where attendance sagged after the inaugural game between Florida State and Virginia Tech in 2005), it's clear that the matchup is everything.
Last year, Virginia Tech and Boston College, schools about as far away from Tampa as you can find in the ACC footprint (and one a small, private school), used about 3,000 of their combined 20,000 ticket. Georgia Tech and Clemson, the closest schools outside of the state to Tampa, surpassed that 20,000 mark.
Last year, the schools clinched spots in the title game after their final regular-season games. This year, Georgia Tech wrapped up the Coastal Division three weeks early and Clemson won the Atlantic two weeks ago.
"Last year was a tough situation," Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said. "Now this year, the ball bounced the other way."
There are lessons Charlotte should take from Tampa:
• Keep the ticket affordable; Tampa's least-expensive seat cost $25.
• Stage a range of ancillary events to bring out fans from the other 10 ACC schools. Charlotte is geographically closer to the epicenter of the league and officials hope that helps.
After next year's game, the league will look to lock up a host city for at least 2012. Tampa could be in that conversation.
"We've always been pleased with the way the Tampa Bay market has helped us put on a first-class event," Kelly said.
"We sincerely want what's in the best interest of the ACC for the event," added Higgins. "If they deem we're a viable candidate in the future, then we'll look forward to those discussions. … I know there's nothing else we could have done to show just how much our relationship with the ACC means."