As ACC Settles Into Its New Charlotte Home, A Question:
Why Did League Leave Behind 70 Years In Greensboro?
These Answers, Facts Behind Them, May Surprise You

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

The Atlantic Coast Conference, which has called North Carolina “home” since the league’s creation in 1953, has effectively ended its 70-year run in Greensboro and completed the much anticipated and gradual, months-long move of the league’s headquarters to Charlotte.

The ACC’s new office is located at 620 South Tryon Street in “uptown” Charlotte, about two blocks from Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the ACC’s annual football championship game. The Charlotte Convention Center and the NASCAR Hall of Fame are among the other center-city landmarks just a short walk away.

Although dozens of ACC employees won’t have their first “official” day at the new Queen City headquarters until Tuesday, Sept. 5, coming out of the Labor Day weekend, the site’s game-day operations center is already functional and will be operating at full speed late next week, when ACC football teams will play 12 games over a five-day period, from the opening nonconference game on Aug. 31 (Elon at Wake Forest, 7 pm, ACC Network) through a national-spotlight conference matchup on Sept. 4 (Clemson at Duke, 8 pm, ESPN).

The ACC’s 15-member Board of Directors, chaired by Duke president Vincent Price, first announced in October 2021 that the league would begin relocation conversations with other cities, while also extending its discussions with Greensboro.

“The Board of Directors is continuing its work to evaluate and will make decisions that are in the long-term best interests of the ACC,” Price said then. “Greensboro has been our proud home for almost 70 years and will be given thorough consideration to remain so for years to come.”

In the same statement, however, the ACC painted a picture that seemed to exclude Greensboro. The league specified that the criteria for its (assumedly) new location would be focused on, but not limited to, the following:

• located within the Eastern time zone
• population size with positive growth trends
• growth and diversity of population
• access to a large hub airport with effective accessibility to and from all ACC member schools
• anticipated benefit to the overall ACC brand and potential synergies to existing and prospective partners
• financial considerations related to operational expenses

Only a handful of cities in the Eastern time zone fit that size-growth-diversity-brand-synergy description, and Charlotte clearly stood out among them from the start. The “financial considerations” reference included both the reality that bigger cities likely would be more expensive than Greensboro and an overt, flirtatious wink — which ultimately paid off nicely — toward any government officials at the state, county and city levels who perhaps were interested in luring the ACC with tax incentives and/or other financial benefits.

Because all 15 ACC member institutions are located in the Eastern time zone, that initial criterion was not a surprise, but it may surprise even many North Carolinians to learn that Charlotte’s explosive growth trends in recent decades have made it, according to many 2023 projections, the 14th-most populous city in the nation.

The largest cities located in the Eastern time zone are now New York (estimated population 8.3 million), Philadelphia (1.6 million), Jacksonville, Fla. (971,000) and fast-growing Charlotte (917,000), which passed both Columbus, Ohio (908,000) and Indianapolis, Ind. (881,000) in recent years.

Among those six large cities, three lack a deep relationship with the ACC, while New York (the Pinstripe Bowl and some recent ACC Tournaments) and Jacksonville (the Gator Bowl, and the league’s annual meetings are held in ritzy, nearby Amelia Island) have some significant links, and Charlotte has many ties (second-most ACC Tournaments, most ACC football championship games, some ACC Network facilities, much more).

The numbers obviously change when you consider suburbs and surrounding areas, but in terms of city-specific population, Charlotte is now larger than San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Nashville, Washington (D.C.), Las Vegas, Boston, Portland, Memphis, Detroit, Baltimore and Atlanta, and it’s almost twice as large as Miami and Raleigh.

Charlotte checks the growth and diversity boxes, too.

The Charlotte metropolitan area, which also includes Concord, Gastonia, Huntersville, and Rock Hill, S.C., as well as a number of other fast-growing suburban cities and towns, has an estimated 2023 population of more than 2.8 million, which ranks 20th in the nation. Also known as Metrolina, the area grew almost 19 percent from 2010 to 2020. Among larger metro areas, only Dallas, Houston and Orlando had higher growth rates in that recent time period.

In terms of demographic diversity, Charlotte is about 40 percent white, 35 percent African-American, 15 percent Hispanic/Latino, six percent Asian and four percent other. Those numbers reflect far more racial diversity than those for North Carolina (62 percent white) or the United States (59 percent white) in their entireties.

Meanwhile, though many in North Carolina have fond memories of their trips to Greensboro for the ACC Tournament, most ACC fans outside North Carolina simply don’t share those sentiments. For many years, there have been complaints about the limited number of direct flights to Piedmont Triad International Airport, along with the public transportation, restaurant and entertainment options in Greensboro.

Legendary Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim caused a public stir years ago with his Denny’s reference and other comments about Greensboro, but ACC coaches and administrators traveling from other states privately registered similar complaints for decades.

Remember, while Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest once comprised literally half of the ACC membership (it was only an eight-team league for a while), those same founding ACC members now make up only about 27 percent (four of 15) of the conference. Generally speaking, those other 11 schools just don’t have romantic feelings about Greensboro, as many connected to the Big Four universities have had and still have in many cases.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is not only a hub airport (via American Airlines), with the obvious non-stop flights to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Miami, New York and dozens of other major cities, nationally and internationally, it has regular non-stop flights to smaller ACC cities such as Charlottesville, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Tallahassee, too. While that may not matter to anyone in North Carolina, it matters to a lot of people in those places.

It was no surprise, then, when the ACC chose Charlotte over Greensboro and Orlando (the only other city visited multiple times by conference officials) as its new home. Conversations with D.C. and New York never extended beyond the exploratory stage.

“Today is a transformational day for the ACC and for our 15 world-class institutions,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said last September. “We truly appreciate the state of North Carolina for its dedication to keeping the conference headquarters in the state, and the Charlotte leadership for their commitment and ongoing partnership.

“After a comprehensive, inclusive and deliberate process, the Board decided that Charlotte – an amazing and vibrant community – not only meets, but exceeds, the needs of the ACC. Our new home will provide both known and unknown benefits to our student-athletes, member schools and conference office staff. The decision to relocate from Greensboro was a difficult one, and the entire city and its first-class representatives will always hold an incredibly special place in the history and legacy of the ACC.”

“The Board of Directors is pleased that the conference headquarters will be joining the Charlotte community and is quite excited about the long-term opportunities that will afford,” Price said. “The Board also recognizes and expresses our thanks for what has been a truly wonderful relationship with Greensboro over the last 70 years, and we appreciate the support shown by the state of North Carolina to have the league office remain in the state. We are grateful to the city of Charlotte and look forward to a flourishing partnership.”

When Phillips and Price mentioned the state of North Carolina’s “dedication” and “support,” they were referring mainly to money matters. The “follow the money” mantra always applies in these situations, and it typically dominates the conversation, even if and when other things also matter.

The North Carolina legislature allocated $15 million in state funds to the ACC because of its decision to remain in North Carolina. The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County also approved business-investment grants for the ACC of approximately $40,000 each.

The $15 million in state money is tied to the ACC’s pledge to keep its headquarters in North Carolina for at least the next 15 years (into 2038), along with its commitment to hold a large number of the league’s postseason tournaments (beyond those already scheduled) in North Carolina over the next decade-plus.

“I think the return on investment will highly outweigh the $15 million,” Phillips said. “But again, I can’t speak for anyone other than the ACC. We looked at that and that was part of the agreement, and I think the ACC certainly feels that there will be major benefits for the state.”

As the ACC remains well behind the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference financially, Phillips has been seeking creative ways to find additional revenue for the conference since he succeeded 24-year ACC commissioner John Swofford in February 2021.

Full distribution of the ACC Network, finally achieved in December 2021 (many years after the Big Ten Network and the SEC Network), was one significant step in the right direction for the ACC financially.

ACC expansion remains an ongoing option, because each new addition to the conference would bring a “pro rata” increase (more than $30 million per school per year) to the value of the league’s multimedia deal with ESPN. However, unless the new schools would accept zero shares or partial shares for a period of years after their arrival, that new revenue wouldn’t increase any existing ACC school’s annual shared-revenue payout from the league office.

In both football and men’s basketball, on-field and on-court success — e.g., making lots of big bowl games, getting lots of NCAA Tournament bids, and having multiple teams advance far during March Madness — also can directly increase the ACC’s financial bottom line in any given year, although Phillips and other conference officials have no direct control over such things, of course.

In response to the ACC’s “anticipated benefit to the overall ACC brand and potential synergies to existing and prospective partners” criterion, which was included in its initial expansion statement, many have asked this logical question: Does physical proximity to potential business partners actually matter, especially in the Internet Age?

While that’s perhaps a deep dive for another day, and one that the league’s independent consultant (Newmark) undoubtedly will continue to explore, there’s absolutely no doubt that Charlotte offers more business potential than Greensboro in that regard.

Among cities in the Eastern time zone, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Boston are the biggest business hubs by various definitions, including the Fortune 500 impact. In 2020, for example, there were 65 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the New York City metro area, representing a cumulative total of almost $1.8 trillion in revenue. The Atlanta metro area ranked 12th nationally on that list, representing almost $400 billion.

In 2020, 13 Fortune 500 companies called North Carolina home. None of those 13 is based in Greensboro, although Labcorp (#274) and Hanesbrands (#436) are nearby, in Burlington and Winston-Salem, respectively.

Among the six North Carolina-based companies that ranked in the top 250 of the Fortune 500, all six have their headquarters in the greater Charlotte area: Bank of America (#25), Lowe’s (#44), Honeywell International (#92), Duke Energy (#123), Nucor (#139) and Truist Financial (#217). Lowe’s is headquartered in Mooresville, about 30 miles north of Charlotte by car, and the other five are based in Charlotte itself.

From the Fortune 500 list, Sonic Automotive (#301) and Brighthouse Financial (#457) also call Charlotte home, meaning eight of the top 13 are located in the greater Charlotte area. Yet another Fortune 500 company, CommScope Holding (#381), is located in Hickory, which is only 45 miles (as the crow flies) from Charlotte.

ACC officials knew all along that moving the league’s headquarters out of North Carolina entirely would have caused even more indigestion, and an even more severe break from the culture and history of the league, than a 90-minute trip (insert your favorite traffic joke here) down I-85 to Charlotte actually did cause.

A relocation to the still-growing Queen City keeps the league’s headquarters somewhat centrally located (about 845 miles south of Boston and 730 miles north of Miami) and shows respect for the league’s North Carolina-centric culture and history, while also opening the door to much-needed new business opportunities.