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UNC's poor football attendance is a topic again

There weren’t many people left in Kenan Stadium to celebrate UNC’s 48-14 victory against Illinois on Saturday.
There weren’t many people left in Kenan Stadium to celebrate UNC’s 48-14 victory against Illinois on Saturday. Robert Willett -- rwillett@newsobserver.com

There are tired, beat-a-dead-horse topics that us media members like to talk about, and write about, and then there's North Carolina football attendance, which is among the tiredest of them all.

It wouldn't be fair or accurate to say that attendance at Kenan Stadium has always been bad. People filled it up regularly during the Mack Brown years, and certainly there were seasons before the Mack Brown years in which attendance was strong.

It is fair to say, though, that football attendance is an issue at UNC, and has been for some time. This is nothing new. But it has become a topic of discussion, again, amid some spotty crowds to start the season – including one, last weekend for the Illinois game, that looked especially bad.

An announced crowd of 41,000 showed up at Kenan to watch the Tar Heels' 48-14 victory against the Illini. And since “announced” crowds are almost always inflated – at UNC and nearly everywhere else, too – that means the actual number of people in the seats was somewhere in the 30,000s.

The capacity at Kenan Stadium is 63,000. Which means the place was roughly half-full – or half-empty, depending on your perspective – on Saturday. Even at UNC, which, again, isn't known for its incredible crowds, the lack of attendance stood out on Saturday.

It was bright, beautiful day (though probably fairly warm, especially on the sunny side of the stadium). It was a decent-enough non-conference game against a team from a Power 5 conference. And yet some sections of Kenan were nearly entirely empty.

UNC coach Larry Fedora was diplomatic earlier this week when asked about the attendance.

“I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to everything else that’s going on,” he said when asked about fan support.

His players do, though. Marquise Williams, the senior quarterback, acknowledged earlier this week that attendance “was pretty low.” He said he noticed that Tre Boston, a former UNC player, had written about the poor attendance in a post on Twitter.

“He was just like, 'Jeez, man, they acting like we was losing,'” Williams said. “We (were) winning and we still couldn't fill the stadium.”

A combination of factors have contributed to UNC's poor attendance. The season-opening, nationally-televised loss against South Carolina didn't help. The opponents – N.C. A&T and Illinois – haven't been especially attractive. And there's likely been a hangover effect after a 6-7 season last year.

There are broader reasons, too, that are often provided to explain UNC's attendance woes: the lack of an established “football culture,” however that can be defined. Unattractive kickoff times – like the one at noon for the Illinois game.

Discussion about UNC's attendance seems to come up about once per season, or so, and did again on Tuesday when Bug Howard presented on Twitter a light-hearted solution to the Tar Heels' crowd woes. Howard, a junior receiver, wrote, “Maybe if we did a (men's) basketball pick up game at halftime of our games maybe people will show up? Will you?”

As of Wednesday around noon, Howard's tweet had been retweeted more than 400 times. After UNC's practice on Tuesday a crowd of reporters waited to speak with Howard. While he approached the media scrum, some of his teammates walked past Howard and shouted his name, as if him to encourage him.

“Probably because of the Twitter tweet that I tweeted, I guess,” Howard said with a sheepish smile.

Howard said his tweet was the result of a collaboration with “a collective of guys” – some of them men's basketball players. They had been talking, Howard said, about ways to improve attendance at football games.

“I wasn't sure about the attendance during the game,” Howard said. “I just (saw) a picture of it this afternoon. And so when I (saw) the picture, I was sitting with some basketball guys, and we just had a talk.

“And they was just trying to figure out ways that they could help get people to come out and support us.”

The tweet, Howard said, was more of “a joke” than anything. He said he didn't think it was “too harsh,” but he said acknowledged the positive role that a strong, energetic crowd can play for a successful team.

Attendance for UNC's game on Saturday against Delaware, a team from the Football Championship Subdivision, isn't likely to be a tremendous improvement over the one that came to Kenan Stadium for the Illinois game. If UNC announces a crowd of less than 50,000, it'd be the first time since 2006 that UNC has played three home games in the same season in front of announced crowds in the 40,000s.

The announced crowd of 41,000 on Saturday was UNC's sparsest since an announced crowd of 32,000 came in 2012 to watch a game against Idaho. That game was played through a driving rain storm. UNC announced a crowd of 44,000 for its home-opener against N.C. A&T Sept. 12.

The attendance for the games against Illinois and N.C. A&T were among UNC's worst for any home games during the past 10 seasons. Since 2006, which was John Bunting's last season as head coach, UNC has had more crowds (13) in the 30,000 and 40,000s as it has had in the 60,000s (12).

Fedora said earlier this week that he hasn't paid attention to the empty seats, but he has also acknowledged the importance of changing the culture surrounding football at UNC. Increasing support and interest and building that difficult-to-define “football culture” is among his broad goals.

Sometimes, though, the simplest solution is also the best – the one that makes the most sense. As Williams, the quarterback, sees it, there's an easy way for UNC to solve its attendance problem.

“We've just got to win,” he said. “We have to win. If we don't win, nobody's going to show up. Nobody's going to get out of bed early. I'd rest, too, if we (were) losing. We've got to win games – that'll get them in.”

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