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Packing ACC Fans In (Or Not)

Which ACC teams put fannies in the seats?

Cameron Crazies
 DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 07: The Cameron Crazies cheer during the game between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 07, 2020 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Covid-19 times remain maddeningly dangerous and unpredictable, especially in a nation led by those averse to speaking truth.

Still, we can safely project the number of spectators attending ACC contests this coming basketball season will set modern, blizzard-condition lows, even supposing spectators beyond the involved teams, game officials and facility management staffs are allowed inside the arenas. TV talkers may not even be on hand to broadcast the action their networks pay to provide; several years ago ESPN mastered live coverage of games from outside the building, the commentators back in a studio in Connecticut.

So we may have to wait another year or more before we see, for instance, the overt impact on fan enthusiasm of the coaching change at Wake Forest, where five of the last six seasons and eight of the last 10 were duds competitively and in terms of attendance.

Meanwhile there are speculative nuances of emptiness to be savored.

What will it be like to have few or no Cameron Crazies present to respond to Mike Krzyzewski’s strategic exhortations meant to lift his Blue Devils to greater emotional heights at key moments?

Given the chance, what cutouts will populate Cameron? A sea of Coach Ks? And will Duke still list every game as a sellout, its perpetual practice, based on tickets sold rather than on seats in the seats? If it does, will its 9,314 attendance top all Division I schools rather than perpetual leader Syracuse with its gargantuan Carrier Dome?

How difficult will it be for players to feel a part of their anticipated, emotionally immersive collegiate experience or to generate energy when performing in echoingly unoccupied arenas, especially cavernous buildings at Chapel Hill and Syracuse that seat more than 20,000? Can we assume coaches around the league will apply an old prod in a new context, emulating Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who had T-shirts made proclaiming “BYOE” for Bring Your Own Energy?

Will schools supply piped-in sound contrived to emulate a real game atmosphere much the way old-time radio announcers added appropriate sound effects to augment baseball broadcasts? Providing faux cheering, once ridiculed when employed to boost enthusiasm for the NBA’s somnolent New Jersey Nets, is now embraced by the NFL in orchestrated snippets of pre-recorded sound peculiar to each league home crowd. (Philadelphia Eagles’ games include characteristic booing too.)

Not everyone needs external stimuli to get excited to play, as the New England Patriots’ notoriously terse coach Bill Belichick suggested. Asked if he’d ever experienced a stadium atmosphere as sepulchral as today’s fan-lite NFL games, Belichick replied dryly, “Practice.”

Recent ACC attendance numbers do reveal a few intriguing stories, allowing us to see what changed and what didn’t over the past few years even as we wait to see who comes through the doors in 2020-21.

Remarkably, while few took notice, since the 2017 season the average number of home spectators increased significantly at Boston College games (+16.67 percent) despite the Eagles’ continued struggles, and at Virginia Tech (+15.09).

UNC (+12.36) and Florida State (+8.95) also saw jumps in occupancy, a bit surprising in already stable, prosperous situations. The Tar Heels reported improved attendance even while losing in 2020. Among the ACC programs trending in popularity only the Hokies had a coaching change to goose enthusiasm (or curiosity).

The most pronounced attendance declines lately came at Wake Forest

(-19.62 percent), Louisville (-19.03), Miami (-17.98) and Notre Dame (-11.52).

Since 2017 three programs endured a season in which they officially filled fewer than half their seats – Boston College in 2017 (49.29 percent); Pitt in 2018 (32.93) in Kevin Stallings’ final, winless ACC year; and Wake in 2020 (47.08) for what proved Danny Manning’s last hurrah.

Only BC’s Jim Christian survived so pronounced a single-season low in recent years. The thin throngs of 2017 actually exceeded those in 2016 at Conte Forum, also on Christian’s watch. The ’16 Eagles attracted witnesses who filled only 39.64 percent of the seats to see an 0-9 ACC effort at home, 6-11 overall, en route to a winless league season.

Reported Attendance At ACC Arenas As Percent of Total Capacity, Last 4 Years
School Arena, Capacity 2020 2019 2018 2017
BC Conte Forum, 8606 65.96 60.92 59.96 49.29
C Littlejohn Coliseum, 9000 75.91 77.94 86.03 80.68
D Cameron Indoor, 9314 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00
FS Tucker Center, 11,500 78.18 79.37 74.02 69.23
GT McCamish Pavillion, 8600 65.59 69.13 75.79 70.16
UL KFC Yum! Center, 22,000 75.72 75.46 76.74 94.75
UM Watsco Center, 7972 71.16 83.35 89.27 89.14
NC Smith Center, 21,750 92.43 90.64 84.50 80.07
NS PNC Arena, 19,700 76.90 70.54 77.43 80.74
ND Joyce Center, 9149 78.69 83.38 85.00 90.21
UP Petersen Events Ctr, 12,500 70.60 61.02 32.93 66.62
SU Carrier Dome, 35,012 61.99 62.81 61.30 61.50
V JPJ Arena, 14,623 96.36 96.33 95.21 97.42
VT Cassell Coliseum, 9275 95.69 88.81 82.78 80.60
WF Joel Coliseum, 14,665 47.08 52.00 57.45 66.70