Cover Story: Pigskin payoff is big for Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Charlotte proves the critics wrong with the help of a few thousand fans.

Some critics said Charlotte could never host a bowl game in the winter.  Then they said the city wouldn't support two big college games in December.

Well after Tuesday night's successful Belk Bowl and the ACC Football Championship earlier this month the critics are eating crow.

If seeing teams come through the tunnel at the stadium is what gets fans excited.  What brings music to the ears of Charlotte business is ringing cash registers, and there was a lot of that this December.

The ACC Football Championship December 3 (featuring Clemson and Virginia Tech) sold out.

And Tuesday, December 27, the inaugural year of the Belk Bowl was the fourth biggest crowd in the ten years of the bowl.

Having NC State in the game helped.

The last Wolfpack fans to check out of The Westin today, the Smiths and the Norris family, estimated they probably spent $2,000 each for the game, hotel and food.

And they wouldn't have missed it for the world.

"We stayed two nights," said Wolfpack fan Jerry Norris.  "The team stayed here. We were able to celebrate with a lot of the team in the lobby after the game after they got back here to the hotel."

Replied fan Chuck Smith:  "It's something we promised the kids every year for Christmas.  If they go to a bowl, we'll follow the Wolfpack to the bowl. Wolfpack's got a pretty loyal following."

Nearly 58,500 went through the turnstiles of the Belk Bowl, on par to sell more tickets than some of the bigger name bowls this year.

Many of the college football bowls around the country are struggling in this economy.

Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana (which the UNC Tar Heels were in) was easily less than half full Monday night.

The Sugar Bowl, featuring Virginia Tech, hasn't sold all of its allotment of tickets.

Will Webb, executive director for Charlotte Collegiate Football, which organizes the college games here says they were blessed with proximity.

"NC State was three hours away. Louisville six hours away," said Webb.  "People could get here.  Once they came they know the logistics work great. You park your car. You've got great bars, great restaurants, shopping, museums.. all within walking distance and they can walk to the stadium."

And while here organizers treated the teams like kings - hosting a day at CMS and showing them the sites.

Jeff Beaver, the head of the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission, says this year Charlotte proved it can host the ACC Championship and a bowl game.

"Not only can we not do both games.. there's a possibility we may do a third game - that's to be discussed. Charlotte can do anything they put their minds to," said Beaver.

It was the first time the bowl game was in primetime - broadcasting the lights of Charlotte to a national audience on ESPN.

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