The NCAA on Wednesday released its annual men’s basketball attendance report and, at first glance, it looks good for North Carolina.
UNC ranked fourth nationally in attendance during the 2015-16 season, when an average of 18,326 people filled the Smith Center for the Tar Heels’ 16 home games. Even more impressive for UNC: The combined attendance for all 40 of its games was 781,614, which led the nation.
The Tar Heels’ run to the national championship game, where it played in the vast NRG Stadium in Houston, boosted that overall attendance number but, still: More people watched the Tar Heels in person than any other team last season.
That was the good attendance news for UNC. The not-so good: The Tar Heels are in the middle of the pack in the ACC when it comes to filling their home arena to capacity. UNC’s average home attendance of 18,326 represents 84.3 percent of the Smith Center’s 21,750-seat capacity.
Which means that, on average, UNC played in front of nearly 3,500 empty seats. All but four teams in the ACC – Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame and Miami – played in front of an average of at least 1,200 empty seats.
Syracuse, in the expansive Carrier Dome, played in front of an average of nearly 11,500 empty seats – and thousands more beyond the curtain separating the basketball court from the rest of the stadium. Duke, Virginia, Louisville and Notre Dame were the only ACC teams to fill their arenas to an average of at least 90 percent capacity last season.
Here’s how ACC schools fared last season in attendance by capacity, with the capacity of the school’s home arena in parentheses. Clemson is excluded because it played its home games in Greenville, S.C. while Littlejohn Coliseum was being renovated:
1. Duke (9,314), 100 percent
2. Virginia (14,593), 96.6 percent
3. Louisville (22,090), 94.4 percent
4. Notre Dame (9,149), 93.1 percent
5. Miami (8,000), 87.5 percent
6. N.C. State (19,557), 85.7 percent
7. North Carolina (21,750), 84.3 percent
8. Pittsburgh (12,508), 72.3 percent
9. Georgia Tech (8,600), 67.8 percent
10. Virginia Tech (9,847), 67.6 percent
11. Syracuse (33,000), 65.4 percent
12. Wake Forest (14,665), 64.9 percent
13. Florida State (12,100), 58 percent
14. Boston College (8,606), 39.6 percent
Larger arenas harder to fill
Poor Boston College.
Now, naturally, the more seats, the greater the challenge to fill them. Take Syracuse, for instance. The Orange’s average home attendance of 21,592, which ranked second nationally, is impressive on the surface.
And yet it becomes slightly less impressive when you consider the enormity of Syracuse’s Carrier Dome, and its 33,000-seat capacity for basketball. More than 26,000 packed the Carrier Dome for Syracuse’s game against UNC on Jan. 9. Which meant there were still several thousand empty seats.
To a lesser degree, UNC faces the same challenge as Syracuse: How to fill an especially large basketball arena? Among the 10 schools that led the nation last season in average home attendance, six filled their arenas to at least 94 percent capacity and five – Kentucky, Maryland, Wisconsin, Indiana and Kansas – filled their arenas to at least 98.4 percent capacity.
Then there were Syracuse, UNC, N.C. State and Creighton. They were also among the top 10 schools in average home attendance, but all of them left at least 13 percent of their seats empty. All of those four schools generate enviable fan support but only one of them can make an argument for having the most successful college basketball program in history.
And so it’s a fair question: Why isn’t UNC’s home attendance better?
Among college basketball’s other so-called “blue bloods” – the likes of Kentucky, Kansas and Duke – the Tar Heels lag behind when it comes to filling up their home arena. Part of the challenge, again, is arena size. It’s easier for Duke to fill Cameron Indoor Stadium and its 9,314 seats than it is for UNC to fill the 21,750-seat Smith Center.
But size is only one component. And large arenas haven’t hurt Kentucky, or Louisville, for that matter. Kentucky led the nation in home attendance last season and averaged 23,361 fans at Rupp Arena, which seats 23,500. On average, Kentucky played in front of home crowds at 99.4 percent capacity.
Louisville, meanwhile, filled its home arena, the unfortunately-named Yum! Center, to an average of 94.4 percent capacity. The Cardinals drew an average crowd of 20,859 to their 22,090-seat arena, and they ranked just ahead of UNC in overall average home attendance.
One spot below UNC, Maryland drew an average of 17,863 fans to the 17,950-seat Xfinity Center. At Indiana, the Hoosiers played in front of crowds that, on average, filled 98.4 percent of the 17,472 seats at Assembly Hall. And at Kansas, the Jayhawks played in front crowds that, on average, filled Allen Fieldhouse to its capacity.
Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas … three schools with rich, proud basketball history. And three schools that either filled their home arenas for all their games last season, or came close to it.
Then there’s UNC. The Smith Center a season ago hosted one of its most memorable environments in years when Maryland came to town for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The annual home game against Duke is always a sellout, and loud and raucous. And the place is always full and festive, too, for the annual home game against N.C. State.
Beyond a few games each season, though, empty seats – sometimes rows at a time – are noticeable throughout the Smith Center. The home finale against Syracuse on senior night, when UNC held on for an important 75-70 victory that preceded Marcus Paige’s memorable senior night speech, wasn’t even a sellout, and that was with the Tar Heels closing in on the ACC regular season championship.
The home opener last Nov. 15 wasn’t a sellout, either, or anywhere close to it. Granted, it was against Fairfield. Still, UNC was ranked No. 1 and the game couldn’t have come with a more fan-friendly date – on a lazy mid-November Sunday afternoon. About 13,000 people showed up.
Smith Center outdated
There are a few reasons for UNC’s relative attendance woes, if they can be described as such. Chief among them, perhaps, is the fact that the Smith Center becomes more outdated by the year.
It opened in 1986, and while it has largely remained the same since then, arenas – and fans’ expectations of what an arena should be – have progressed significantly in the past three decades. The Smith Center has no luxury suites. The concourses are narrow.
The concession stands often come with long lines and offer basic, standard fare. A more modern, fan-friendly building might entice more people to show up.
Renovating the Smith Center, or building anew, ranks highly on athletic director Bubba Cunningham’s to-do list. And it’s no surprise that both plans – either a renovation or a new building – include a reduction in seats, to somewhere between 16,500 and approximately 17,500.
Beyond the Smith Center’s physical limitations, a combination of factors likely hurts UNC’s attendance, each to a varying degree: the advances in technology that allow fans to create a premium game-watching experience at home; the relative shortage of floor seating for students; and, yes, the culture.
At its fullest and most energized, the Smith Center can be among the loudest, liveliest arenas in the country. It’d be difficult for any building, anywhere, to provide a better environment than what UNC had against Maryland last season, for instance, or what the Tar Heels normally have against Duke.
But those kinds of environments aren’t the norm. UNC doesn’t lack for fans and doesn’t lack for support but, compared to Kentucky or Kansas or even Indiana, the Tar Heels seem to lack that element of maniacal, feverish support that borders on the obsessive – or the insane.
Undoubtedly, a segment of UNC fans will disagree. Proof, though, is in the attendance.