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Roundtable: How to fix UNC’s gameday atmosphere

North Carolina's mascot cheers with Tar Heels fans during the second half of a game against North Carolina A&T in Chapel Hill on Sept. 12, 2015. North Carolina won 53-14.
North Carolina's mascot cheers with Tar Heels fans during the second half of a game against North Carolina A&T in Chapel Hill on Sept. 12, 2015. North Carolina won 53-14. AP

North Carolina football attendance, covering games in offbeat locales – like, say, the one N.C. State will find itself in Saturday – and college football in November: These are the topics our roundtable will tackle (pardon the pun) this week.

As always, some questions and answers with News & Observers college reporters Andrew Carter, Joe Giglio and Laura Keeley, and columnist Luke DeCock:

Question: It seems like we talk about UNC's football attendance issues every year (probably because we do) but let's take a different spin on it. You're UNC AD Bubba Cunningham: What do you do to address the football program's attendance woes?

Andrew Carter (UNC beat reporter): Ticket prices could be an issue though I'm not sure how much lowering them would help. You can buy ones for the Delaware game, for instance, for $15.

The bigger issue is UNC lacks a real game day environment. Improvements have to start there. No, the tailgating scene at UNC isn't ideal. There's no concentrated area for that like there is, say, at N.C. State.

But there is a picturesque, quintessential American college town steps away from Kenan Stadium, and UNC and Chapel Hill need to find a way to come together to make football game days more of an event than they are now.

Food trucks, bands, street vendors, activities for the kids – all that can happen, and probably should be happening – on Franklin Street on game days. Make game days more an event and football will become more a part of the culture of the town, regardless of the biggest factor, which is winning games.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): You beg the television gods to eliminate kickoffs before 2 p.m. You beg the ACC for a time machine and only play games against teams your fans care about.

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): I think this is a multi-million dollar question that all schools are trying to answer. Much newspaper ink and internet space has been devoted to this topic nationally, as attendance, and particularly student attendance, is down all over. Schools like Alabama are having trouble drawing the student crowds they would like for all games, for instance. I'm not sure what the answers are. And know that if I did, I would have already started a consulting firm to profit off said answers.

There's no doubt that creating a community-like atmosphere at games would be a positive for attendance. I am unfamiliar with what the student tailgating scene is like at UNC, but if I was Cunningham, I would be inclined to check it out and talk to leaders of various student groups/fraternities/etc. and see what it would take for them to go to the stadium and support the football team. Maybe they have great, specific ideas. But you never know if you don't ask.

Luke DeCock: I spent a chunk of the second half of Saturday's game outside and thought the music and PA was way too loud, maybe for the amount of people in the stadium, maybe period. Get off my lawn! But seriously, getting on the lawn may be a solution. Why not open up some on-campus grass spaces for tailgating? There are countless quads, practice and intramural fields and the like that all sit empty on Saturdays. If East Carolina fans can tailgate on elementary and middle school grounds (and clean up after themselves) surely UNC fans could use beach carts and wheeled coolers to drag their setups onto campus. Seems to work for Mississippi.

Q: The job took our pal Joe Giglio to Old Dominion last week, and he'll be at South Alabama on Saturday to cover N.C. State. Truly random destinations. What's the oddest place you've been to cover an event?

Carter: After making the arduous, peril-stricken journey to the Bahamas last year (hey, I did have to fly on something called Bahamas Air, whose fleet seems to consistent of a single plane), I can now say that I've covered a major college basketball tournament on a court inside a ballroom. That's how they do things at the Atlantis Resort. Outside of that, though, nothing beats the charm of covering the 2011 Independence Bowl while dodging rain drops in the leaky press box of whatever they call that stadium in Shreveport, La.

Giglio: The mall in the middle of a swamp in south Florida (Sunrise, Fla., 30 miles north of downtown Miami) where a major professional hockey team (Florida Panthers) plays defines random. The Carolina Hurricanes’ old training camp haunts in Estero, Fla. also made for some strange times.

Keeley: Probably Troy, Alabama — which Joe will hit next year. Duke played at Troy last year, and it was quite an experience. I flew to Atlanta and rented a car and drove three hours to Troy. Driving on those rural Alabama roads was jarring — it was just such a different place than where I grew up (suburban Dallas and Pittsburgh). And then when I got to Troy, there wasn't much there, obviously. Not even chain restaurants, which, while no indicator of quality, does, I think, illustrate just how out there Troy is. I mean, where is there not an Applebees or a Friday's or just a general sign of bland Americana capitalism? In Troy, that's where. Still, it was an enjoyable trip from the standpoint of being reminded of just how different parts of this country are.

DeCock: I've been to such vacation spots as Thunder Bay, Ontario, (in January) and Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., (in January), and called in a high-school football playoff story from a pay phone in the parking lot of a Burger King in Orland, Calif. But none of that compares to watching North Carolina play Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson.

Q: We're already a quarter of the way through the season. Based on what we've seen out of the Triangle teams, will the final month of football's regular season or the start of basketball be a bigger deal come November?

Carter: The start of college basketball will probably always take precedence, to an extent, around here. That said, I have this crazy feeling that all three local schools could be factors in their division races in November.

The Atlantic certainly seems more open than it did before we got a glimpse of Florida State's offense, and while UNC and Duke aren't favorites in the Coastal, that division remains wide open – especially given Georgia Tech's crossover games against Clemson and Florida State.

Giglio: Don’t give up hope. Either Duke or UNC can still win the Coastal and Florida State and Clemson don’t look as good as recent versions leaving the door ajar in the Atlantic for the Wolfpack.

Football will never be basketball around here, but that doesn’t mean we have to shut down the carnival and pack up for the winter just yet.

Keeley: Basketball. Partially because all three fan bases will have reason for optimism and partially because the early returns don't indicate that any of these three teams will be good enough to make a run at a division title. Obviously Duke and UNC are in a better position to do so in the wacky Coastal Division, but I wouldn't count on either team actually making a run.

DeCock: Since all three football teams may be in division-title contention (Duke and North Carolina probably, N.C. State possibly) and the Duke-North Carolina and North Carolina-N.C. State games are both in November, I'll give the edge to football over Duke-Kentucky, N.C. State-LSU (potentially) and the usual passel of exhibitions and glorified exhibitions. That ends on Dec. 1, when the ACC-Big Ten Challenge kicks off.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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