RALEIGH — In its first two home basketball games this season, N.C. State drew an average attendance of 10,700, well below the RBC Center's 19,722 capacity.
Those figures are not surprising to former Wolfpack athletic director Les Robinson, who warned about the move off campus more than 10 years ago, when the decision was being made.
"In a perfect world, a slightly smaller place of about 17,000 on campus would have been better, in my opinion," Robinson said last week. "Any coach wants the best possible homecourt advantage, which usually means being on campus with a loud, crowded arena. Herb Sendek [then State's coach] felt the same way. ... But it just wasn't feasible at the time."
State left 12,400-seat Reynolds Coliseum after the 1998-99 season, Sendek's third after being hired as coach from Miami of Ohio.
Tom Fetzer, chairman of the state Republican Party and Raleigh's mayor during the building project, said during a recent visit to The News & Observer that Sendek and Robinson expressed serious concerns to him about the move.
According to Fetzer, Sendek predicted "an unmitigated disaster for our basketball program if you get us out there. Please. And don't build this thing bigger than 17,500 or we won't be able to fill it."
Efforts to reach Sendek for comment were unsuccessful, but Robinson confirmed that he and Sendek expressed their concerns at time.
"I told some people - so did Herb, I think - that playing in a place like Reynolds is worth five points a game, more than five in some of the tougher games probably," Robinson said. "It's the same at Duke. The home advantage changes some when you go to a big, big building. But there just weren't any realistic options at the time. Renovating Reynolds would have cost an absolute fortune, and there still wouldn't have been a way to add parking."
At the outset of the 10th season in the RBC Center, the team generally draws impressive turnouts for ACC games but rarely turns big gates for nonconference games. In 18 home games last season, the average draw was 13,436, compared with 16,535 for the first season.
Wolfpack associate AD Dick Christy, who supervises box office operations, said the season-ticket sales total for 2009-10 is about 10,000, down from approximately 11,000 last season. Season-ticket packages range in cost from $192 to $800.
Fetzer said he did not reveal the earlier conversations with Robinson and Sendek, who resigned to become coach at Arizona State after the 2005-06 season, because he promised to keep the discussions private.
"I never told that story because I promised Les and Herb that I'd keep it between us because they would have been crucified by their donor base," Fetzer said. "I did a ton of research. ... I don't regret anything I did that whole time. I'm glad the building is there. I still think the building is a little too big."
The project - originally referred to as the Entertainment and Sports Arena - was a venture involving NCSU, Raleigh and Wake County. It was completed for approximately $160 million. The primary occupants have been the State men's basketball team and the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, who partnered with the original funding group.
Fetzer said he never opposed the building but was against the amount of public funding and that the cost of the arena - projected to be about $70 million - kept increasing.
"We were being lied to about the cost of that building," Fetzer said. "That whole thing was being run by Steve Stroud and Charlie Bryant."
Bryant was director of the NCSU Wolfpack Club athletic boosters group, and Stroud, a Triangle developer and real estate agent, was chairman of the building's planning commission. Both rejected Fetzer's comment about the process.
"No one was being misled about anything, to my knowledge," Bryant said Monday. "Everything we did was out in the open at every step, and we sure as heck tried our best to keep everyone up to speed on costs, because we had to raise the amount of money we were talking about."
Stroud had a similar view.
"Nothing was hidden. All of our meetings were open," Stroud said last week. "The original plans were for a basketball-only arena, and those costs were compiled by N.C. State. The building we have now is not even close to what it started as, and this arena has paid for itself in spades. It's still one of the best in the country after 10 years in operation."
Stroud said the RBC Center is the state's only public building of its type that actually pays taxes.
"By the end of this year, about $20 million in taxes will have been paid," he said. "The investment by the Hurricanes shouldn't be overlooked either. They've put in $45 million in cash. Two weeks after the building opened, the Staples Center in Los Angeles opened at a cost of more than $400 million, and the two buildings are almost identical."
Lee Fowler, who replaced Robinson as athletic director in September 2000, said he and current coach Sidney Lowe are "completely happy" with the facility. And while Fowler thinks the RBC Center will serve State's needs for another 20 or so years, he would like to see the attendance gap bridged between league and non-league games.
"But if you look across the country, lots of schools have significantly smaller turnouts for early-season games than those later in the season," Fowler said. "The crossover between basketball and football games is a factor, but fans are always going to be more interested in games played against conference rivals.
"Our season-ticket sales in the RBC would take up almost every seat in Reynolds. Plus at the RBC, we can make room for more students to see games. We have 3,500 tickets for students every game there."
Fowler said State has committed to investing more than $6 million over 15 years in RBC improvements.
"Unlike a lot of big arenas, the RBC will age at a slow rate," Fowler said. "I think it's turned out to be a terrific bargain. To build something like it today would cost I don't even know how much. But it would be very, very expensive, I do know that."
Since the 1989-90 season, State teams have had only five winning seasons in ACC regular-season play, including a 15-33 combined league record under Lowe. The program last landed an NCAA berth in Sendek's final season. The Pack is 6-1 this season.
"Once State gets it going again, attendance will not be a issue," Robinson said. "There probably won't be enough seats then. Winning is the key to attendance. That'll always be the way to fill the seats."
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