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The Debate: Kenan Stadium’s capacity

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Was it a good decision to lower the number of seats?

University of North Carolina football stadium... Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

About a year ago, significant seating renovations were completed at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Gone were the bleachers that had existed throughout much of the stadium. In their place, individual seats, with backs and everything were installed. The increased room per seat has resulted in a much more comfortable experience but came at a capacity cost: a stadium that had been expanded in 2011 to 63,000 seats had to be cut down significantly.

I was for it at the time, with UNC having had two straight awful years that consequently led to a fairly empty, or worse, opponent-dominated stadium on gamedays in Chapel Hill. As I wrote a year ago, “the reduction in seating capacity is long overdue. It is not good for the school, the team, or the program’s development to see huge swaths of empty seats on a beautiful fall afternoon. Even with a decent-sized crowd, the bleachers prevented the stadium from looking full in all but a few rare circumstances. This is definitely a situation where less is more.”

Now, things have changed and the program is heading in a new, exciting direction. That leads to a reevaluation of last summer’s assumptions and a new debate for 2019. Also, before I get started, a hat tip to Jake for filling in last week and keeping the debate going.

The Debate for the week of August 5: Was the Kenan Stadium capacity reduction a good idea in retrospect?

Point: The change that was needed was with the head coach, not the bleachers.

There are lots of reasons as to why the bleachers were a great element of the Kenan atmosphere. First, they were very loud when the whole stadium rose and banged on the aluminum. This was certainly an intimidating factor for opponents trying to get in late play calls. Second, the bleachers promoted a sense of family in the stands that is slightly diminished with individual seats.

Most importantly, however, they maximized seating: the change reduced the total capacity by over 11,000. That’s a lot of fans that don’t get to attend home games. That’s a lot of lost energy.

While such a change is understandable for a program that cannot fill the stadium, the reduction now looks like a lost opportunity for a team on the rise. Single-game tickets for Appalachian State and Clemson both sold out the day they went on sale (strong and nearby opposing fanbases notwithstanding). The nearly 30,000 total season tickets have already sold out for the season.

Granted, there will still be tickets available for games, but the prices will be substantially increased on secondary markets with higher demand. While the seats may be more comfortable, significantly increased prices do not raise the fan experience (although the beer will certainly be a big step in the right direction). Additionally, it was Mack Brown who pushed for an expansion in the late 90’s. It will not be long before he may see the need to push another one just to get the stadium’s capacity back to where it was 22 years ago.

With a very highly ranked recruiting class already shaping up for 2020, the excitement around the new regime in town isn’t just a one-year thing; there are long-term building blocks being set in place. Perhaps hiring Mack Brown sooner or delaying the stadium contraction by a year would have been a more prudent choice to see if the attendance trends would have changed. The cure for a team that cannot fill a stadium should not be to shrink the stadium.

Counterpoint: Long term, increased demand is a good thing.

While it would be nice to have another 6,000 or 7,000 season tickets available, this summer is pretty clearly an anomaly caused by an aggressive marketing campaign that’s taking advantage of mostly unearned excitement. Sure, everything the new regime has done so far looks positive, but we can’t forget that Mack Brown has not won a game in Chapel Hill in over 20 years. With a reclamation project this big, turning the Heels into a football powerhouse, or at least one of the ACC’s top-ish teams, would take time for anybody, let alone a man who hasn’t coached in 5 years.

Any team can fill a stadium on opening day, but maintaining that type of attendance throughout the season is key to both fan morale and recruiting. Having a more comfortable fan experience is always a plus.

The demand demonstrated from reduced seating capacity will be both positive and lasting. Tickets should be a little hard to get and going to games should be a big deal, not an afternoon afterthought.

A little perspective is also important. It’s not as though the Heels now play in a high school stadium (as is the case for a certain conference opponent basketball program). At around 52,000 after the remodel, Kenan holds more fans than the stadiums of Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College, and Syracuse. Carolina’s stadium is not small, it is right-sized.

Time for you to decide! Was the Kenan Memorial Stadium renovation and capacity contraction a year ago a good idea or should it have been left alone?

As always, readers are encouraged to join in through the comments and point out what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we never thought of. Also, please feel free to provide suggestions for future topics so we can cover what interests readers and what information is needed to ensure victory when debating slow-witted friends who don’t read the articles! As the sign in my parents’ yard reads, Keep Calm and Go Heels!