When Coca Cola uncapped New Coke in 1985, the move was a resounding flop, causing a quick return to the original formulation. At last report, Coke is prospering anyway. Although the new soda fizzled, an argument can be made that failing to adapt to changing competitive conditions would have been worse than not trying at all.
That’s why North Carolina’s athletic leadership should be applauded for daring a more nuanced approach to spectator seating at Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels join Penn State, no football slouch, Arizona State and Kentucky among FBS schools in reducing stadium capacity this season. The aim is a more comfortable and fan-friendly game experience, according to North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham.
Spectators arriving at Kenan for the Heels’ first home football contest on Sept. 15 against Central Florida – a program that fashions itself the genuine national champion after last season’s undefeated record – will enter a stadium with 12,000 fewer seats than last year’s capacity of 63,000.
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The new arrangement replaces metal benches on the facility’s upper and lower levels outside the student areas with individual seats complete with backs and arm rests. Presumably student bottoms haven’t yet spread to fit the 22-inch-wide cushions in the more pricey seats, a size equivalent to a standard first-class airplane accommodation.
UNC’s revamped seating is consistent with more far-ranging changes undertaken nationwide to attract the non-hardcore college football fan, from speeding up the game to serving beer in public areas at dozens of stadia, including Wake Forest. The NFL and major league baseball are plagued with similar difficulties seizing attention and loyalty in a sports marketplace crowded with alternatives. There, more intimate ballparks have proliferated.
College football has taken a particular attendance hit. The 2017 FBS average of 42,203 fans for home and neutral-site games was the lowest since 1997. That’s also the biggest single-season drop (-1,409) in 34 years and the second-largest since the NCAA began keeping track in 1948. Last season the ACC’s per-game attendance fell 1,292 to 48,442. That’s 1,540 fewer than in 2013 -- prior to the league’s mid-teens expansion to 14 football-playing members and increased visits from Notre Dame.
UNC’s attendance averaged 50,071 per game last season, down from 54,667 in 2014.
The trend holds true in milder form with ACC basketball. Even as it rose from fifth in average attendance in Division I in 2013 to third in 2018, the league slipped to a per-game average slightly below what it was a decade ago. That’s despite a bump from the 2014 inclusion of Notre Dame and Syracuse, the latter often the nation’s top home draw.
The declines don’t signal a crisis, but aren’t encouraging, either.
No wonder the ACC has a “Fan Experience and Attendance Committee” with representation from all 15 members. “Across all Division I athletics we are seeing a decline in attendance, particularly in football. Across the board,” says Nels Popp, an assistant professor of sport administration at North Carolina. “We don’t know for sure what’s causing that.”
TV is one likely culprit, its impact on attendance debated since the ACC and sports telecasts were in their infancies. Early on, ACC leaders resisted televising the conference’s postseason basketball tournament, fearing live broadcasts would suppress in-game patronage. More than 60 years later that trepidation has in a sense been justified by technological advances including high-definition TV and ubiquitous mobile devices that make it easy to stay home.
“We’re in a period now where people’s ability to watch a game is phenomenal,” ACC commissioner John Swofford noted recently, “whether it’s (on) your phone or (in) your living room. And it’s a quality experience.”
TV also affects how we view games, in person or at a remove. Commercials produce frequent, extended stoppages that sap a game of continuity. At home, they invite channel surfing in search of more compelling action. Networks delay the announcement of select football starting times until attendance becomes problematic for out-of-towners. This practice is creeping into basketball too. Fridays are no longer reserved for high school football, Sundays long since given over to basketball.
But the networks pay well, making the tradeoffs worthwhile to decision-makers. “We see all these athletic departments anxious to sign lucrative TV deals, but part of those media deals means you play a 9 o’clock tipoff on a Tuesday night,” Popp observes of basketball
What’s missed by staying at home is fellowship, the contagious excitement of watching the action with an extended community of like-minded seatmates. Those and other intangible qualities are hard to define but easy to appreciate in evaluating the investment of hours in driving and sitting time to attend a game in weather fair or foul.
“People expect a lot,” says Michael Strickland, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for football. “Time is the most valuable commodity and asset any of us have. There’s probably a higher burden now than ever before in what we expect.”
UNC’s Popp points to the Durham Bulls and minor league baseball, with a more casual, energized ambience offering plenty of distractions, as a model to emulate. A more engaging in-person experience -- independent of the game itself -- can drive demand for tickets and support higher prices, outweighing any loss of patrons caused by down-sizing a venue like Kenan Stadium. Winning helps too.
Folks at Carolina, where a smaller basketball arena may be on the horizon, might not cite it as an example, but the Triangle already has a model that perfectly illustrates how less can be more -- Duke’s perpetually sold-out, 9,314-seat Cameron Indoor Stadium.
2013 51,500 7 games
2014 54.667 6
2015 49,653 7
2016 50,250 6
2017 50,071 7
Based on NCAA statistics.