A sellout crowd of 73,535, two upstart teams and packed hotels and restaurants contributed to a vibrant Uptown Charlotte in December of 2002. In addition to a rocking Bank of America Stadium, more than 45,000 fans attended the Uptown Street Festival and Pep Rally. The startup of the Belk Bowl was a true success story.
Staging a major college football bowl game in Charlotte was not possible prior to 1996, as a large, first-class facility was not available. That changed with the opening of the state-of-the-art Bank of America Stadium, home to the Carolina Panthers of the NFL. Built by the Richardson family, owners of the Panthers, and considered the gem of new stadiums, Bank of America Stadium provided the city with a venue to host top-tier sporting events.
With a facility in place in the city, Raycom Sports began exploring possible options for collegiate events to be held in Charlotte. The number of universities from the Atlantic Coast Conference that are within a short driving distance to Charlotte made ACC schools the most logical participants.
Raycom brought Division-1A college football to Charlotte in the form of the Carolinas Clash in 1996 (and 2004), featuring NC State and East Carolina, and a two-year series between North Carolina and NC State in 1998 and 1999. They were all played at Bank of America Stadium.
Raycom also had significant experience in the college bowl business. It had provided sales and marketing experience for a number of different bowl games. Raycom also founded and operated the Sunshine Football Classic in Ft. Lauderdale for 11 years. The game was moved to Orlando and is currently the Champs Sports Bowl.
Ken Haines, President & CEO of Raycom Sports, envisioned a major college bowl game in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium. He met with several business and community leaders in Charlotte, garnering local support for a NCAA bowl bid for the Queen City. Mayor Pat McCrory and other community leaders quickly offered assistance, and the Richardson family made their facility available.
The first step was receiving NCAA certification for a postseason bowl game. The NCAA had a moratorium on new bowl games, capping the number of games at 26. But on June 21, 2001, Haines had received word that one of the existing games might not return in 2002, creating a possible opening for Charlotte. Haines called a Raycom staff meeting and within two days a formal application package was delivered to the NCAA Bowl Certification Committee in Indianapolis. If the certification was approved, the ACC and Big East Conference agreed to supply participating teams.
The bowl effort got off to an auspicious start as Haines was scheduled to make the formal Charlotte presentation at the committee at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Philadelphia on the morning of September 11, 2001. After landing that morning, he watched on television as the day’s tragic events unfolded and at 10:45 a.m. informed an unsuspecting group of college athletic directors and NCAA staff members of the attacks on America. After a few brief comments, the meeting was cancelled and it wasn’t until eight months later, on Wednesday, May 1, 2002 at the NCAA meetings in San Antonio, that he was able to give a full presentation to the Certification Committee.
On Thursday, May 2, 2002, the NCAA Bowl Certification Committee formally granted approval to Raycom Sports for a new bowl game to be played in Charlotte.
On Sunday, December 8, Virginia and West Virginia officially accepted invitations to play in the inaugural game, pitting the No. 2 team from the ACC against the No. 2 team from the Big East. Less than one week later, on Saturday, December 14, the game was completely sold out. A crowd of 73,535 packed Bank of America Stadium. It is believed to be the fastest sellout of a first-year bowl game in history.
In addition, Bank of America Stadium and the city of Charlotte played host to the largest non-BCS crowd of the bowl season, and the second-most attended inaugural bowl game in NCAA history.