(For the record, I'm not leaving the Smith Center out of this problem all together and attendance has waned there as well. Many of the problems outlined here apply to basketball, but seven Saturdays a year versus week/school/work night games against Directional State just doesn't seem a fair comparison. )
So, to quote the great Vince Lombardi: "What the hell is going on out here!?"
Well, it's complicated.
Over the years, I've heard plenty of excuses from every type of fan, many of them weak and some borderline ridiculous. These days, the interest level is blamed on everything from the economy, scandal fatigue, constant upheaval with the football coaching staff, poor football opponents, the heat in September, the cold in November, etcetera, and so on. In fairness, declining attendance is a problem everywhere, not just for Carolina. But weak attendance save a game or two a year in Chapel Hill is nothing new either.
In years past, the University did little to address the needs and wants of the individual fan. And perhaps I'm alone in this belief, but the decision to re-seat Kenan three years ago has contributed mightily to the decline in attendance. Sure the newer big money donors were appeased, but many long-time hard-core come-to-every-game-rain-shine-noon-or-not-win-or-lose fans were uprooted and not surprisingly, ticked. Couple that with the partnership with StubHub and the University has proven adept at chasing a dollar and deficient in getting Tar Heel butts on those Kenan bleachers.
On the positive side, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham is actively attacking the problem rather than taking the former stance of plugging ears and whistling, hoping things would just work themselves out. And the best way to tackle the issue is by tasking a former athlete, with a ground level knowledge of the importance of great fan support, to help correct the problem.
Enter Brian Chacos.
Chacos spent five-plus years in the Tar Heel trenches before injuries nixed a chance at professional football. Front office work for four years with the Atlanta Falcons and another with the Carolina Hurricanes provided Chacos with experience on the customer service side of sports, so accepting the recently-created UNC position of Director of Fan Development and Ticket Sales for Football, Basketball and Baseball was a logical progression.
IC readers are already familiar with Chacos from his playing days, his appearances on the site's Letterman's Roundtable and the Inside Carolina Radio podcasts. Cunningham's plan will have the former offensive lineman working the front lines in the battle against fan complacency.
"Our fan support has been a tremendous passion of mine since I first stepped on to the field at Kenan Stadium," Chacos said when I asked him about why he took on this role. "I know that the dedication and support is there, we just as a collective Carolina community need to show it on a consistent basis.
"I think what people don't understand is that fan support and ticket sales and coming out to the stadium (whichever one—Kenan, the Dean Dome, Carmichael or the Bosh) affects everything this school does."
The fan support argument always ends with the chicken and egg debate. These days, with multiple options for entertainment available, the economy still working its way back into shape, and with the local media dragging the dead carcass of NCAA troubles around at every turn, Carolina's fight for a strong fan turnout day in and day out is not easy. Hiring and keeping strong coaches matters. Winning matters. Atmosphere matters. The fan experience matters. But what comes first? And if one happens, will the others follow? Most fans and onlookers fall somewhere between hope and doubt on whether those answers will become clear. And now the task of searching and finding those answers will fall to Chacos.
Creating an effective ticketing strategy, more offerings for pregame activities, making use of the Blue Zone patios for gatherings, and increased outreach to season ticket holders and donors are in progress and Chacos and Carolina are banking on those ideas to help. Time will ultimately tell.
Winning matters. A culture change matters. But working together matters the most and after many years of doubting and hoping and seeing effective ideas ignored and junked, Carolina appears to finally get it.
Have a suggestion or comment for Brian? He's at email@example.com.