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Charlotte: The numbers on the Tire Bowl

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Tire bowl's return proves a winner for hospitality

Uptown hotels booked but spending expected to fall

Erik Spanberg

Senior staff writer

Organizers of the Continental Tire Bowl burned rubber last year. Now they're trying to maintain a more moderate speed without being run over by outsized expectations.

"What happened last December was lightning in a bottle," says John Swofford, commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which pits one of its schools against a Big East Conference member in the game. "We want to take that foundation and develop a steady success."

The Dec. 27 game at Ericsson Stadium, sponsored by Charlotte-based Continental Tire North America Inc., pits Pittsburgh against Virginia. Last year, a Virginia-West Virginia pairing filled all 73,535 seats.

Ken Haines, chief executive at bowl creator Raycom Sports, has more modest aspirations this year. He says attendance of 40,000 to 50,000 would be a solid encore. Tickets cost $27.50 to $67.50 each. Raycom's break-even number is 38,000.

Virginia fans have snapped up 20,000 tickets, with another 10,000 requested. Raycom sent staffers to Pittsburgh to promote the game. Pitt has sold 25% of its 12,500-ticket allotment. Local sales account for 10,000 tickets.

Despite the lowered expectations, organizers may benefit from a reconfigured contract. Last year, all ticket sales above 38,000 were split between Raycom (25%) and the schools (75%). The unbalanced split, combined with unexpected security and crowd-control costs, made the game a money-loser. Ticket revenue distribution has been made more equitable; terms haven't been released.

Raycom rents Ericsson. The stadium, owned by the Carolina Panthers, retains all concession sales. "It's a good fit for us because it's something that helps bring people to town," says Jon Richardson, president of Carolinas Stadium Corp., which runs the stadium. "And it does provide some incremental revenue."

Uptown hotels benefit from the game at a time when occupancy usually dwindles. The Marriott, Omni and Westin all have bowl-related events scheduled, as well as a number of reservations for the schools and their fans.

Tim Newman, president at Charlotte Center City Partners, says most of the 4,200 hotel rooms uptown are booked for the bowl weekend.

The inaugural game filled 4,600 rooms in the center city -- and another 5,000 in outlying areas, part of an overall $13.1 million economic impact. The impact will be less this year because of lagging interest from Pitt fans.

With a three-year commitment from Continental and a TV contract with ESPN2, the bowl will be played, at least, through 2004. After that, the conferences and Continental will decide whether to continue. "The game has exceeded a lot of expectations," Haines says. "Our expectation is that we will continue."

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