Back in October, I had the joy of going back to sit in Kenan Stadium to watch Carolina play Virginia. It was a beautiful fall day with a 3 PM start. The sun was out, the weather was warm but not hot, and Carolina almost pulled out a great win. Before the day started, I grabbed this shot:
In that moment, you can see why Kenan needs to get rid of its bleachers. This was a full 30 minutes before game time, so about 2:30, and that side of the stadium had been baking in the direct sun for hours. You feel sorry for everyone who has a ticket to that side...except for the Virginia band who reminded us the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve anytime the Cavs scored.
You also don’t feel sorry for the folks in that little section on the left side. Those folks were part of an experiment that the Athletic Department instituted in replacing the metal benches with plastic chairs. Every other section has to wait for the sun to set, but those two weren’t afraid of their backside turning well done every time they sat down.
The announcement last week by UNC that the results of that experiment yielded an enthusiastic positive will lead to the majority of Kenan looking like those two sections. What’s noteworthy about the announcement wasn’t just that the people in those two sections loved the seats, but that several fans that sat in other sections clamored for the plastic chairs as well.
I’d recommend the podcast by Jones Angell and Adam Lucas where they sat down with Bubba Cunningham and discussed this more in depth. It’s a good nuts and bolts discussion about where the money came from and why they made that decisions they did.
A Better Fan Experience
This change is primarily about one thing: making people feel better about paying $25-$60 a ticket to go sit outside for over three hours. This is no small feat in the world where most people’s home viewing experience is about as good as being there in person, and doesn’t include having to fight for a parking space or deal with stadium concessions.
That’s the key here. It’s easy as an student to wonder why someone wouldn’t want to spend every Saturday at the football stadium, especially when all you have to do is walk there because you live on campus. Once you leave the confines of Carolina, going to a football game is a significant investment. There’s the crushing traffic getting to Chapel Hill, you have to park somewhere and pay for it, you have to pay for your tickets, and you are gone long enough to where you have consider what you are going to consume for food and drink. As you age and get a family, that’s more tickets to have to buy, more food to consider, and less you worry about the game.
So, taking all of that into account, if you still want to go and then happen to get a seat in the section where you can’t even sit down because it’s nothing but hot metal...well, you can understand why folks who have been long-time season ticket holders would clamor for something a little better.
Even for those who get on the shaded side, the bleachers are not a great thing. The lack of a back makes them difficult to enjoy, and the lack of a defined space for those of us not born to 1920’s proportions means you are probably getting really comfortable with your neighbors. Really comfortable. And if you have little ones who can’t sit down? Forget it. If changing those metal slabs for plastic causes those folks to come back to Kenan, then it’s a big win.
The hit to attendance
Of course the big negative, and the one that rival fans have been having a lot of fun with, is the fact that Carolina is willing to cut about 12,000 in their official attendance in order to “look fuller.” It is true that a universal sign of a team doing well in football is high attendance numbers, and the more people you put in a stadium the better.
At least that’s what most people thought.
Thinking about making a stadium bigger just to cram more people in is an outdated way of thinking in today’s world. As mentioned, you have to give people a reason to shell out money to see something they can see on TV. Having to shell out, on average, about $50 for a spot on a metal bench wasn’t going to cut that. In fact, that the seats will cut so many from the attendance number probably tells you just how narrow Carolina considered a “seat” in Kenan before.
Starting with Camden Yards, baseball teams quickly figured out that bigger just for the sake of attendance wasn’t the way to go, rather, a better overall experience should be the goal. Pretty much each new stadium that has replaced an old one in the sport has come with a reduction in seats but an expansion in the experience. Even ballparks that renovated put more into the experience than the seating, Fenway Park being the example that jumps to my mind. The team essentially bought property surrounding the stadium, but instead of extending the footprint to add about 10,000 more seats, they have systematically been replacing seats around the park to more comfortable chairs, and added more experiences for their fans.
Even the NFL is starting to get this memo. The Vikings new stadium is almost double the size of the Metrodome, yet they only added about 1400 seats for regular season football. The Falcons new stadium is taller and wider, yet they only added under 4,000 seats.
Kenan can’t expand its footprint any further. They already tore down the iconic field house on one side and filled in the other in front of the Bell Tower. So, the option to make the fan experience better is to shrink the seats, and they will cover that cost by going to a tiered system, where the closer to the 50 you sit, the more you pay. It makes sense to go to this system, as it is a little silly to pay the same price to sit in the sun at the 30 as it does to sit in the shade at the 50.
The fact of the matter is, a full stadium of 51,000 is going to sound better than an 80 percent full stadium at 51,000. The optics will be better, the fans will be happier, and you are likely going to have more games be a sellout, which obviously helps the pitch to recruits and improves perception around the program.
I get the jokes, but ultimately when those who are paying to go to a game clamor for this the athletic department really had no other choice. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Smith Center/new basketball arena take a similar move at some point, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Sometimes, to get better, you have to get smaller.