Playing for Keeps

Leaning back in his chair, his hands behind his head, Boston College
athletic director Gene DeFilippo takes in the panoramic view of Alumni
Stadium from his new office, which is filled with boxes he has yet to
unpack. It's a sweltering afternoon in Chestnut Hill, two months before
Boston College plays its first football game as a member of the
Atlantic Coast Conference, the powerhouse athletic league it joined
this year after fleeing the Big East. And DeFilippo is enjoying a
little downtime.

It may be the last he gets for a while. The Eagles' first ACC game
is this month, against none other than Florida State University, one of
college football's signature programs. FSU flosses its teeth with the
kinds of teams BC is used to playing. The Seminoles have won two
national championships and seem to rank in the top 10 every year. Then
there are the rabid fans. Football is religion in Florida, and the
worshipers headed to Boston for the big game September 17 have just one
question: Where the hell are they going to park their RVs?

In the Big East, BC never had to worry about fans from Syracuse or
Connecticut scouring the suburbs for Wal-Mart parking lots to anchor
their land yachts. But by following the money to the ACC, Boston
College has stepped into a bizarre new world, one in which the school
will surrender its campus several times a year to invaders from the
South—and erudite, intellectual Boston had better get ready.

Florida State fans, like those of other ACC schools, don't just
travel to opponents' cities—they lay siege. The Seminoles' signature
“tomahawk chop” chant has pulsed through the streets of Jacksonville,
New Orleans, and Tempe. Next up: Boston. FSU sold its allotted 4,500
tickets to the BC game in the blink of an eye. Another 5,500 fans were
turned away. Of course, the Saturday game is only the centerpiece of a
weekend blowout. Thursday is FSU Night at Fenway Park, which means the
Monster seats will be filled with good ol' boys spitting boiled
peanuts. On Friday the action moves near Faneuil Hall for a “Beach Bash
before the Battle” rally. When Saturday finally, mercifully, rolls
around, they'll kick things off with a tailgate to really show us
Yankees how to party.

The clash of cultures is not lost on John Hinds, who heads the
Greater Boston Seminole Club. “I think there's a certain amount of
snobbery involved in terms of people here saying, 'They're just a bunch
of hicks down there who don't have anything else to do than dress up
silly,'” Hinds says. “I think there's going to be a certain amount of
resistance to that.”

Whatever gave him that idea?

Probably the fact that the difference between Boston and its new conference-

mates is as wide as the gap between “You, there” and “y'all.” Here,
you're likely to meet someone with two last names. Down there, two
first names. There was one very compelling reason for this move, but it
sure has produced an odd coupling. BC had a good thing going in the Big
East. The schools in that conference largely shared its attitudes about
society, athletics, even religion. If the Eagles managed to get invited
to a bowl game, or made the NCAA basketball tournament, it created a
flicker of excitement on campus, and the city perked up and paid
attention for a week or two. But the commotion soon washed away in a
sea of Red Sox playoff news or Patriots dynasty talk. College sports
barely register around here. Sports talk radio treats college athletics
as if it were the second cousin of NASCAR. And BC gets buried in the
sports pages behind a dozen stories about Manny being Manny.

“It's a square peg in a round hole,” David Scott, a veteran
sportswriter and author of the Scott's Shots media blog, says of the
BC-ACC marriage. “We're so puritanical in our ways toward college
football. If you go to a game at Virginia or Clemson, it's a weekend
act. The RVs show up on Thursday and don't leave till Monday. We're
just never going to have that here.”

Boston College left the Big East for one reason: money. And there
promises to be plenty of it in the ACC. Will BC fans ever warm to
rivalries with schools so different, so far away? And what about New
England fans in general? Even DeFilippo can't say for sure whether
anyone around here is really ever going to care. “The Patriots and the
Red Sox, let's face it, they're part of the culture,” he says.
“Nobody's going to replace them or cut into them. Can we become part of
the culture? I don't know.”

And it doesn't really matter. This move was never a gamble. The
money's already in the bank. Boston College won the second it joined
the ACC.

DeFilippo insists that BC had no choice when it came to switching
leagues. Here's the thing with college sports—all college sports: No
matter what college presidents, athletic directors, or coaches say,
it's about money. Television money. And nothing brings in television
money like football. That's why the ACC raided the Big East in 2003,
stealing away the conference's two best football programs, Miami and
Virginia Tech. The Big East remains a premium basketball conference,
but outside of a few weeks in March, college basketball is nothing
compared with football. BC looked around and realized that without
Miami and Virginia Tech, the Big East was in serious
trouble—second-tier-status kind of trouble. It was only a matter of
time until the television money dried up.

The school's new conference, by contrast, signed a seven-year
television deal last year with ABC and ESPN, reportedly for as much as
$263 million. BC will get a cut of that (the exact figure hasn't been
determined, but Virginia Tech's share in its first year in the league
was $6.25 million), as well as money from bowl games and the
conference's annual championship game. Before jumping to the ACC, BC
was looking at cutting some sports. Now it's been able to add
scholarships for men's and women's lacrosse, rowing, and baseball,
which is highly competitive in the ACC. As for the Big East, its yearly
TV haul is reportedly a fifth of what the ACC will get. “This was the
best thing for Boston College—it wasn't even close,” DeFilippo says.
“If any of the other [Big East] schools had the opportunity, they all
would have jumped.”

There's also the matter of the national exposure the new league will
provide. Boston College likes to boast it has more students from
California than from Connecticut, but it's always had a regional
athletic program. This year, however, at least four of the school's 11
games will be on national television. That builds the national brand.
It also attracts better athletic recruits. Coming out of high school,
linebacker Brian Toal was rated as one of the best defensive players in
the country. He had loyalties to BC, where his brother played fullback,
but his ultimate loyalty lay in making sure he played on national
television, the better to attract the attention of professional scouts.
“When they were on the outside of the ACC, for a while I really started
to get nervous and started looking at other places real hard,” says
Toal, now a BC sophomore. “Once they got back in the picture, it made
my decision a little easier.”

Of course there's still the question of whether anyone in New
England is going to start caring about college sports just because BC
has joined a new conference. Last year the school's football team sold
out 44,500-seat Alumni Stadium 40 percent of the time, which is a nice
way of saying only twice in five games. The basketball team won 12
straight before it sold all 8,606 seats in Conte Forum for the first
time. Before that, the team was averaging 4,516 fans per game.

The ACC was concerned enough about the fair-weather following on
campus here that it commissioned a marketing report to make sure it
wasn't wasting its time, and money, with BC. The results apparently
were good enough to convince the league to move ahead. Meanwhile, BC is
trying to drum up interest locally. It has hired a bigtime marketing
firm to devise a slogan—”There's a new league in town”—for billboards
and T-shirts, and it hopes to bring the ACC baseball tournament to
Fenway Park. But the truth is, the school really doesn't need to
attract a single new fan to make this deal a winner. College sports can
remain an afterthought here and BC will still generate piles of cash
for both itself and the ACC, and probably even for the city.

The television money is guaranteed. As for getting fans to the
games, the rest of the schools in the conference will hardly notice if
they're unable to entice Bostonians to sleepy southern towns like
Tallahassee, Blacksburg, and Clemson. They'll keep selling out their
stadiums with or without BC supporters. (The Pats, after all, do not
depend on Kansas City Chiefs rooters to fill Gillette Stadium.) Boston
College, on the other hand, can count on the passionate followers of
the other ACC teams to point their motor homes north for games here.
From now on, sellouts at Alumni Stadium are virtually guaranteed.

And that rolling southern fan base likes to spend. The Greater
Boston Seminole Club has already sold more than 300 three-night
packages for the game here, at $1,000 each. But that's nothing, really.
The Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that each
football game at Alumni Stadium this season will pump between $3.5
million and $5 million into the local economy. Big East games, the
bureau says, didn't generate enough money to register.

Florida State athletic director Dave Hart predicts big things for
college sports here. “The people of Boston, and alumni and fans, will
learn to love our family,” he says of the ACC. Perhaps. But even if we
never do, with all that money rolling in, who's going to care?