Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Zach Read
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins & Getty Images
he Smith Center has become a symbol of college basketball since it opened its doors for action in 1986. For nearly three decades, the familiar view from atop Skipper Bowles Drive has made its way to television sets across the nation. College basketball fans that have never set foot in Chapel Hill can look at a picture of the iconic building from the intersection at Manning Drive and immediately call out “Dean Dome.” The building has become part of the fabric of college basketball, the Carolina basketball program, campus life at the university, and the town of Chapel Hill.
Despite the once-popular notion that Carolina doesn’t have a home-court advantage, the Tar Heels can boast one of the most formidable home records of all college basketball programs. Although the crowd may once have been accurately labeled “wine and cheese,” the addition of the lower-level student section more than a decade ago has boosted crowd noise and given Carolina students a distinct voice in the cavernous arena.
But all these years later, after countless thrilling victories, to say that the Smith Center remains a contemporary structure more than a decade into the twenty-first century would be a stretch. As fans who have attended games in more recently built structures can attest, problems and inconveniences exist in the Smith Center.
On your way into the building on a rainy or snowy winter day, you might wonder why your entrance has to be on the opposite side of the building from which you’re making your approach. When traversing the interior of the arena a few minutes before tip or immediately after the close of the first half, you might find that the concourse is much too narrow compared to the last state-of-the-art building in which you watched a game. When getting concessions you may be irritated that a passersby is walking through your line. And the list goes on. For those concerned about such things, the athletic department’s interest in renovating the Smith Center has recently picked up steam.
“The Smith Center is a great facility,” says Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham. “It has served us very well for a long time. But there’s no question it lacks the amenities that other similar facilities have. What fans more broadly have come to expect in their experience is missing from the Smith Center today. For example, the concourse is narrow. There’s not a main entrance to allow fans to enter….Lobbies are designed differently now. Common spaces are no longer outside. Turnstiles have been moved inside.”
As fans might imagine, due to the dated features and amenities of the Smith Center, discussions about what to do to the building to bring it up to contemporary standards have been ongoing for some time, but they’ve been of the informal variety.
“I would be able to tell you that even over the last 10 years it’s been more creative thinking about what to do,” says Clint Gwaltney, senior associate athletic director of operations. “We really haven’t sat down with architects yet because anything we do is resource-driven and we haven’t gotten to the point of fund-raising.”
Corley Redfoot Architects, which has worked on numerous UNC facility projects—most recently the Blue Zone at Kenan Stadium—confirms it has been involved in some preliminary planning, but the athletic department describes any planning to date as back-of-the-napkin thinking. The possibilities being entertained by athletic department administrators aren’t surprising.
“There’s obvious stuff like expanding the concourses and making them more fan friendly,” says Gwaltney. “We’re interested in finding a way to position our concessions so it’s easier for fans to navigate through the concourse and get concessions at the same time. There’s also some thinking about blowing out the exterior of the building and increasing the footprint, which means perhaps you can bring in an upper-level concourse and have concessions there….Or do you blow out one side of the building and have a huge atrium like the Greensboro Coliseum and put concessions there? And certainly the brown concourse isn’t ideal; in 1986 it was fine, but that would be one of the first things we’d change if and when we can.”
Of course, just about anything can be done to the building, but what is done will be cost-dependent. Lambeau Field received a renovation that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. An exterior was built around the current stadium—a saddlebag, as it’s called—while the team went ahead with its season. A similar construction occurred at Notre Dame, and Carolina football fans are familiar with the idea of renovating and expanding a stadium in phases so as not to disrupt a season.
The options, while not limitless, are varied, so it’s helpful that administrators have other buildings to look to for ideas. As with the Carolina Basketball Museum and other important facilities projects, inspiration can be found from what major university athletic programs and professional sports organizations have done with their buildings.
“Any time you travel to another venue you’re looking at what they’ve done and how you would implement it at your building,” Gwaltney says. “Tennessee took away seats on a side in the upper level and put in suites. Pittsburgh has bunker suites almost at floor level, which is a different idea. When we did the Loudermilk Center we went around looking at places. We’ll do our due diligence and homework before anything is undertaken.”
If the Smith Center is to be renovated in the coming years, fans are right to focus on a couple of questions concerning capacity. Will the Smith Center expand or shrink in capacity? And how will ticketholders be impacted if such renovations occur?
“The one thing I don’t think will happen is that the capacity will ever expand,” says Gwaltney. “If anything, it will likely shrink. If you change the type of seating in the upper level to make it more comfortable or if you try to put in a club area like at Thompson-Boling Arena at Tennessee, then you’re going to lose seating.”
With a potential reduction in capacity, fans would be right to worry about how small is too small. It’s true that each year some nonconference games in December don’t completely sell out. If you were to have a capacity of 17,000, 18,000, or 19,000 fans, then you’d have a sold-out Smith Center the entire season. In prior years Roy Williams has mentioned his preference for a smaller, more intimate setting that never has an empty seat. On the other hand, of course, by shrinking in capacity you’re cutting out some people who have been consistently supporting you over the years.
Personally, Gwaltney would like to see the number stay the same. “I’d rather have the 21,750 fans in their seats eight to 10 times per year and the lesser crowds seven or eight times per year so that we’re providing opportunity for more fans,” he says.
Cunningham shares the concern about maintaining opportunities for fans to take in games at the Smith Center. “I would say that we wouldn’t add to the capacity,” he says. “While it wouldn’t be bad to reduce the number of seats, we have such great support and a great following that we really need to try to balance the fan needs. The reason we have statewide, nationwide, and international support is because we have fans that can make it to games, whether it’s to one game or more. We need to continue having options available for them.”
But there’s no question that if you’re lowering the capacity of the Smith Center by improving the comfort of seats, then something will have to give.
“It’s an interesting situation with the Smith Center because of the way people bought their permanent seats,” says Gwaltney. “The endowment seats have the flexibility to move but the permanent seats pose some challenges as to what you can and can’t do in certain areas, as fans selected those seats. If you redo some lower-level seating and you’ve made wider, more comfortable seats, what do you do if a row reduces from 13 seats to 12 seats? Are you going to relocate that person? There will be some challenges if you start looking into that.”
The recent trend in new stadiums and arenas seems to be to create premium seating for fans. Fans enjoy their own boxes or suites. The athletic department recently pushed to build the Blue Zone, and the area certainly has benefits for those willing to pay the additional costs associated with the seating. But would such seating options work at a renovated Smith Center?
“In basketball I see a different trend than in football,” says Gwaltney. “People would rather be closer to the court than have a suite. I think people chose those permanent seats at the Smith Center for a reason. They want to be close to the action….I’m not discounting that we will end up with suites if we renovate, but we will have those conversations and see what the fan base desires. But again, more people have a tendency to want to be closer to the court in basketball than sit in a suite farther back.”
Other options do remain on the table. With the buzz of renovating the Smith Center becoming part of the public conversation in recent months, the athletic department has not ruled out the possibility of constructing a new arena for the program. But the costs associated with building a new arena are intimidating.
“A new arena is a possibility,” says Cunningham. “But in the other projects I’ve been a part of we’ve started out with an existing building. What I’ve found is that generally the costs of starting from scratch are prohibitive. I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but it’s unlikely.”
A new arena would also highlight the challenge of location. You’d possibly have to move such a facility off campus due to the shortage of land available for such a project. And with the move you’d lose something that makes UNC basketball special.
“The more facilities that are on campus the better,” says Cunningham. “Athletics should be integrated into university life. It’s a great activity for students and it builds a sense of community. Of course, being on campus creates its own challenges. You have vehicle and pedestrian traffic and parking to worry about. But the pluses far outweigh the challenges.”
Gwaltney agrees. “People have talked about building a new arena, but then you have to ask, ‘Where are you going to put it?’” he says. “You run out of real estate on a college campus. Carolina North comes up as a possible location but you’d just as soon not take it off the college campus. There’s still something extremely special about having your arena on campus. PNC arena is not the same as Reynolds Coliseum. Yes, there’s more revenue because there are more seats, but the home-court advantage is not the same. I think we would be very cautious in pursuing a new arena off campus. I like to think that moving off campus would never be considered.”
Despite all the possibilities that have been discussed over the years, nothing will happen to the Smith Center until a larger, university-wide fund-raising campaign kicks off. Although one hasn’t been announced yet, such a campaign, similar to Carolina First, is on the horizon, and when it’s announced, the Educational Foundation will be a part of it.
In the meantime, Cunningham is going to keep lines of communication open this offseason with the basketball program to discuss its needs.
“I’ll talk to our coaches about what will give them a competitive edge for their teams,” he says. “We’ll discuss what possible changes will help with recruiting and where the program needs and fan needs meet.”