Wisely revisiting the past, the ACC is moving its storied basketball tournament championship game from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night.
The announcement came Tuesday during the league’s annual spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla.
As was the case in 1982, when the conference shifted from its traditional Saturday prime-time slot to Sunday afternoon, this change hinged on television, more specifically ESPN.
For decades the network reserved Saturday night of championship week for the Big East tournament final at Madison Square Garden. But when the Big East splintered and left ESPN for Fox Sports, the coveted Saturday night slot, plus Friday night semifinals, opened for the ACC.
Similarly, the ACC last regular season took the Big East’s place on ESPN’s Big Monday package.
The switch takes effect immediately, with Friday’s semifinals set for 7 and 9:30 p.m., Saturday’s final for 8:30 p.m.
“This is kind of a ‘Back to the Future’ moment for our conference,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a statement. “The Sunday championship game worked tremendously well for more than three decades, but I believe our schools, teams and our fans will be excited about crowning a champion on Saturday night. This will be a win-win for everyone involved – players, coaches, fans -- and we greatly appreciate our television partners, ESPN and the ACC Network, working with us to make this happen.”
Swofford will get some push back from fans who attend the tournament and must adjust to a Tuesday start for the 15-team event. That’s a far cry from the Friday-Sunday tournament the conference staged when membership was eight schools.
But despite spectators having to ditch another day of work, and newspaper hacks fighting deadline for the semifinals and final, the switch is ideal.
First, it will place nine of the tournament’s 14 games, rather than last season’s six, in prime time. That’s when most folks watch television, and those ratings matter – a lot.
Second, it will give the championship game some breathing room. The growing obsession with Selection Sunday and the NCAA tournament bracket made a Sunday afternoon championship game borderline irrelevant within two hours.
Third, a Saturday final provides those two teams an additional 16-17 hours rest before the NCAA tournament, especially significant if one or both teams is assigned to a Thursday-Saturday NCAA site and must travel Tuesday night.
Fourth, concluding the tournament earlier gives the NCAA selection committee more time to evaluate ACC teams. Several former panel members have told me over the years that Sunday games can rush decisions as CBS’ 6 p.m., bracket unveiling approaches.
These are jarring times for old-school fans accustomed to three- or four-day ACC basketball tournaments staged in North Carolina. Last season’s addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame expanded basketball membership from 12 to 15 teams and lengthened the event to five days. Moreover, the tournament going to Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center in 2016 and the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center in 2017 and ’18, marks the first time it’s been outside North Carolina in consecutive years.
The ACC tournament returns to North Carolina in 2019 (Charlotte) and 2020 (Greensboro), and the conference is unlikely to ever abandon its roots – the league is headquartered in Greensboro. But realignment across the country has created new opportunities, and the ACC was smart to seize upon not only New York but also a prime-time championship game.
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