I remember the moment the Carolina sports image cracked for me. I was at a basketball game against Pittsburgh, an ACC opponent. I don’t win the lottery very often, so I went in excited, ready to stand on my feet and be a part of the amazing student fan experience I had been promised. However, throughout the game, there were long stretches of pure silence. No cheering. No standing other than by students or those on the risers. It wasn’t even a runaway game.
When I tell this story, the response is always, ”Well, it was Pitt. Attendees aren't going to cheer for that kind of game.” This response is the perfect example of how UNC has created a culture that is not living up to its athletic promise to those who are willing to cheer the most: the students.
UNC sells incoming students on the idea that if they come here, they will have a fan experience like no other. While part of that is true, it is due more to the players’ performance than any effort from UNC or its athletic department.
I consider myself an involved UNC sports fan. I keep up with non-revenue teams, I attend as many games in as many sports as possible, and I cheer as much as I can. But I can also say that my best fan experiences have been at schools other than my own and the reason is simple: other ACC and Power 5 schools place more of an emphasis on genuine student experience rather than commercial placation.
The first area in which UNC fails is its student sections. This issue has been harped on concerning basketball, and while that is a major issue, it expands beyond that. For baseball playoffs, the student seats were moved from where they had been all year to inferior seats farther away. The football student section is poorly laid out as it is too wide and interwoven with sold seats making the whole section lack unity. The placement of the band makes them difficult to hear. Basketball is simply a mess.
I understand that money talks, and seats need to be sold in order for our teams to keep competing at the level that they do, but even Duke, Georgia Tech and Indiana have better laid-out student sections while still maintaining excellent seating for paying attendees. It’s not even about the number of seats. I understand that due to the way our system works only a certain amount can be given, but I find it frankly detrimental that we do not get a section along at least one side of the court. Players, students and even Roy Williams have publicly stated that the fans' energy in the Dean Dome can be lacking compared to other places, especially in our non-riser student section. Some of this is due to the wine-and-cheese crowd, but our current layout separates the students from each other and the court too much for us to create impact that could assist the team.
The second area is in the culture. Most schools have a night where students learn all of the cheers for various sports. Many people would consider “Late Night with Roy” to be this opportunity. While Late Night is an amazing experience for the community, it is essentially an hour-long commercial for the basketball team and does not include any other sport's traditions. The chants are never taught and the overall message is more to the general public, rather than inviting students into the family. Other sports are completely devoid of a night like this at all.
This plays into the complete under-utilization of our marching band. We have a great pep band, and half the time they aren’t even involved with the student section. Their repertoire includes tons of songs and chants and dances that students are clueless of. While some are inside band tradition, which I respect, some are basic songs that, if taught to the student body, could better the game experience. As a student, it is nice to have things that are just ours and that alumni can reminisce and participate in.
I am lucky to attend a university with such athletic prowess across the board. Part of the reason I came to this school was to be an in-your-face, scream-my-voice-out fan, and in a lot of ways, UNC has given me the chance to do that. I have, however, been disappointed in the lack of character and uniqueness that UNC athletics brings to the table in terms of its revenue sports. It almost feels like UNC athletics has a fear of cultivating a culture that is outside of the commercial persona that its teams have nationally.
I will always be a UNC fan, and I will always cheer, but the best way to make sure alumni buy tickets when they’re older is to make sure they have a great time when they are here.
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