By Rick Rothacker and Katherine Peralta
The Atlantic Coast Conference has pulled this year's football title game from Charlotte amid the ongoing firestorm over North Carolina's House Bill 2, the latest sports-related blow stemming from the controversial law.
The ACC game, which was to be played Dec. 3 at Bank of America Stadium, had been expected to draw tens of thousands of fans and pour millions of dollars into Charlotte's economy.
The announcement by the Greensboro-based conference came two days after the NCAA said it would yank seven championship events out of North Carolina over the law passed in March that limits antidiscrimination protections for LGBT individuals. The NBA in July moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte over the law.
The ACC is relocating the football championship from Charlotte, along with all other neutral-site title games that were set to be played in North Carolina in the 2016-17 school year. The conference, with schools spanning the East Coast from Boston to Miami, said the new locations of the tournaments will be announced later.
"The ACC Council of Presidents reaffirmed our collective commitment to uphold the values of equality, diversity, inclusion and non-discrimination," read a statement issued after a meeting of the ACC presidents at Clemson University. "We believe North Carolina House Bill 2 is inconsistent with these values."
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which promotes tourism and hotel bookings in the city, said the cancellation is a blow to the city's economy and is "irreplaceable at this late date." The group estimates the game had a total economic impact of $32.4 million in 2015, making it one of the city's biggest annual events.
"The event has consistently generated significant economic impact for the city that greatly contributes to our quality of life in Charlotte and in North Carolina and helps sustain thousands of jobs," CRVA chief executive Tom Murray said. The group hopes it will "have the opportunity to bring the championship back to Charlotte in future years," he said.
The Charlotte Sports Foundation, which has helped host the football championship for the past six years, said it respected but was disappointed by the decision. The game is under contract to be held in the city through 2019.
"We recognize the economic impact moving the game and its events have on the Charlotte area," said Will Webb, the foundation's executive director, in a statement. "We will continue to work to bring high impact sporting events to Charlotte in the future, including the possible return of the ACC Football Championship Game." ESPN, citing sources it did not name, said Orlando had emerged as a likely candidate to host this year's championship.
Charlotte also hosts the Belk Bowl, which is scheduled to be played Dec. 29 at Bank of America Stadium. The game is also operated by the foundation but has to be certified by the NCAA. Webb said the foundation has no reason to believe the certification, which was given April 1, will be revoked this year.
The foundation is also working with the ACC to refund, if necessary, the more than 40,000 tickets that have already been bought for the game that was scheduled in Charlotte, Webb said.
Along with the football game in Charlotte, the ACC's decision affects the following championships: women's basketball (Greensboro), baseball (Durham), women's soccer (Cary), swimming and diving (Greensboro), women's golf (Greensboro), men's golf (New London) and men's and women's tennis (Cary).
Political leaders react
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB2 into law in March to nullify a Charlotte ordinance, which had generated controversy by protecting transgender people who use public restrooms based on their gender identity. The new law also overrode local ordinances around the state that would have expanded protections for the LGBT community.
Critics have said HB2 discriminates against LGBT individuals, while proponents say it protects bathroom privacy.
In protest, entertainment acts such as Bruce Springsteen have scrapped North Carolina appearances, and PayPal canceled plans to bring 400 jobs to Charlotte. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the state, whose reputation has been battered by comedians and commentators across the country.
The initial flurry of cancellations had slowed over the summer until Monday night's announcement by the NCAA, which struck North Carolina's love of basketball and other collegiate sports. The latest sports cancellations have reignited the issue in the gubernatorial campaign between McCrory and Democrat Roy Cooper.
"How many companies and sports organizations have to leave NC before the Governor & NCGA leadership wake up to the 21st Century & repeal HB2?" Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who favored the city ordinance, wrote in a tweet.
Said Cooper spokesman Ford Porter: "This was completely self-inflicted. We have to take our state back." The McCrory campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Marc Rotterman, a veteran GOP strategist from Raleigh, said he thinks McCrory has a "a very defensible position....but I do think the HB2 controversy is overshadowing his results-oriented message."
"If we continue to have more businesses and events pull out it's a constant drip that will continue to impact the race," he said.
House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican who was one of the HB2 architects, said that the NCAA and ACC's decision to move their games was "unfortunate."
"The truth remains that this law was never about and does not promote discrimination. We will continue to advocate that North Carolina is a great place to live, do business, hold events and to visit," Moore said in a statement.
N.C. Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, said in an interview he would like to go back to the status quo and get both sides together.
"It's going to continue to get worse if we do nothing," he said. "Doing nothing is not a good option. Simply waiting for the courts to mandate what we do, that's bad public policy."
"The bottom line is we just created one big mess because we didn't think through this," he added. "Everybody sticking their head in the sand on this issue isn't going to make the problem go away."
The Charlotte Chamber said it continues "to actively engage state and city leaders to seek a solution to the challenges created by the city's passage of a non-discrimination ordinance and the state's subsequent passage of HB2." The group said it is hopeful "an eventual solution can be achieved."
Brandon Lorenz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said he plans to hold a news conference in Raleigh Thursday to announce the openings of campaign offices in Wake and Mecklenburg County. Turnout NC, a political action committee formed by the HRC and Equality NC, will work to elect anti-HB2 candidates.
Others took aim at the NCAA and ACC for moving games.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, said this week's "announcements are an attempt to force the State of North Carolina to sacrifice our children's safety on the altar of political correctness, and legislators who voted to stop this trend should think twice before they abandon our children," she said.
U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, a Concord Republican, said the NCAA and ACC had made a "blatant political move" and "brings into question their tax exempt status," adding: "This is an avenue we intend to explore."
CIAA discussing issue
Under HB2's cloud, Charlotte last month submitted a bid to host NCAA men's basketball tournament games at the Spectrum Center (the former Time Warner Cable Arena) for three years: 2020-2022. The league said this week it has pushed the decision about those games from December to sometime next year.
Another major sporting event in Charlotte is the CIAA's basketball tournament, which has taken place in the city since 2006. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority estimates its 2015 total economic impact to be $55.6 million. The CIAA, the oldest African-American sports conference in the U.S., said Tuesday a possible relocation of its games is at the discretion of its board of directors.
"The CIAA Board will continue to discuss and determine how to move forward for the collective interest of our student-athletes and stakeholders and for future of our conference. The CIAA is committed in providing the best experience for our student-athletes and creating a respectful and inclusive culture for our diverse membership and stakeholders," said a statement from CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams. A CIAA representative could not be reached for further comment Wednesday.
Staff Writer Jim Morrill contributed.
(c)2016 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)