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Clemson leaving 12th man home?

2016-12-01_16-15-53

Last season, Clemson’s football program leapt into the national spotlight. As its notoriety grew heading toward the title tilt with Alabama, many onlookers all across the country began to take stock of the Tigers for the first time.

One of the recurring themes of last postseason was how well Clemson’s faithful traveled with the team. That fan presence went beyond simply showing up in the stadium and filling seats. Whether in Charlotte or Miami or Glendale, orange-clad fans swarmed the venues and the surrounding metro areas. They overwhelmed vendors, bars, and businesses. Airplanes hit the ground with the roar of Clemson’s cadence count filling their cabins.

As I followed the Tigers on the road, this presence was unmistakable. As a former Clemson student myself who grew up living in the post-Danny Ford era, such on-field accomplishments never seemed particularly real to me. Many fans shared my disbelief and were committed to being part of the journey. Those fans understood that it could be the last time a Clemson team was involved in that process (though many knew the Tigers would probably be back at some point) and were inclined to make the most of it.

Now, a year later, things have changed a little bit. No longer is tracking a potential champion a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This means the narrative about Clemson’s support system traveling in droves all over the fruited plain could be challenged if the Tigers don’t pack out stadiums like they did in 2015-16.

Take this weekend, for example. Ticket sales haven’t exactly soared since the ACC moved its championship game out of Charlotte purely for political grandstanding against a law whose passage, as well as the subsequent faux outrage, hasn’t protected the rights of or deprived rights from a single person. (Can you tell I have some strong opinions on this?) Orlando is a fine city and a worthy venue for the ACC Championship Game, but it drew the short straw on this one.

If the game had been scheduled for Orlando from the beginning, my belief is that it would be sold out—or at least somewhere close to it. People would have made plans according to the location and the venue. However, since plans were already made to get to Charlotte—a driving trip for both Clemson and Virginia Tech—both cancelling those plans and making new ones, as well as rearranging schedules that had already been rearranged once, might have caused more than a few fans to just sit this one out at home.

Dabo Swinney knows this. That’s why he addressed it on Tuesday at his press conference. And just for fun, he said basically the same thing again after practice on Wednesday.

But that’s not the only thing that might keep some fans on their couches this weekend. Another mitigating factor here is that Clemson fans are more educated about what it costs to take in a run to the national title game. Last season, it was easy to say, “Sure, why not?” at every inflection point along the way, so as not to miss out on a historic accomplishment—even if it meant spending New Year’s Eve in Miami and taking an expensive flight on short notice out to Arizona.

I’d imagine lots of families spent January poring over spreadsheets and crunching numbers on calculators trying to unravel newly acquired debt or figuring out what costs they might cut to offset the expensive Clemson fan experience a year ago. I’d also imagine the phrase “Honey, I don’t think we can do this again” became popular in households with orange allegiances.

Clemson could end up with a similar path this season, only with a longer trip to the ACC title game and a shorter one to the natty. For families who felt the financial strain a year ago and wish to consolidate, choices must be made. Do you go to a sure thing down in Orlando, even though the Tigers are likely to win? Do you splurge and return to Arizona for a CFP semifinal? Or do you take the ultimate chance, book a refundable flight to Tampa, and hope the Tigers either get sent to Atlanta (so you can drive) or win out west for a likely rematch with Alabama?

These are hard choices, championship-level choices. Elite programs ask their fans to make them. Saying “yes” to everything that one time is much different than doing it year after year after year.

The result of all this is clear. Clemson may not have that security blanket in supposedly neutral venues this year. It may not paint entire towns orange as it did last December and January, when novelty trumped feasibility and excitement defeated common sense.

Clemson knows the cost of doing business. It has been willing to invest, and it has asked its fans to do the same. This might be the time when both sides learn their limits.

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