With no fans, why don't the Tar Heels and Wolfpack go play basketball at their retro arenas?
Yeah, why not? Wouldn't that be sweet? Here's what it'd ACTUALLY take for North Carolina's most storied basketball programs to play more games in their old barns.
NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series titled “Why Don’t They Just?” in which I pose questions that begin with that phrase. It’s inspired by one of my favorite jokes: “Why don’t they just make the whole plane out of black box?” (Thrillist actually went there and said if you built an entire jetliner with stainless steel or titanium, it’d be too heavy to fly, which, duh.) Anyway, it’s the perfect preamble for people who think they have a simple solution to a complicated situation. If you have any good “Why Don’t They Just?” questions for me to answer, shoot me an email or find me on Twitter.
College basketball is underway, and it’s weird. For one thing, the Maui Invitational is seeing snow for the first time. That would be EXTREMELY off-base for Maui, except for the fact that the tournament was moved from Hawaii to … Asheville.
Yes. A major early-season basketball tournament whose whole raison d'être is being in a tropical place? It quickly pivoted to a hipster-powered Appalachian mountain town whose most famous residents once included the judge from Night Court. So, and I’m just spitballin’ here, if that can happen, why can’t two of North Carolina’s most storied college programs move their home games a few miles down the road, back to their most storied arenas?
If you don’t think about it too hard, there is no reason not to do it. After all, if you’re not allowed to play in front of any fans, you could conceivably play anywhere, right? You could have Duke could take on other ACC teams on a black-top playground in Durham. UNC-Greensboro could play on the nicest court at the Y. Appalachian State could build a parquet floor on top of the Beech Mountain Ice Rink. Wake Forest could host opponents inside an abandoned cigarette factory. Once you’re free of pesky things like season ticket holders, concession revenues, and a home-court advantage generated by ultra-loud student sections, there is nowhere you can’t go. And don’t think college basketball lacks imagination for this type of thing. The North Carolina Tar Heels have played ACTUAL GAMES THAT ACTUALLY COUNT inside a carpeted ballroom at a Bahamian resort, and on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson.
So with no fans to play for, it’s not outside the realm of reason that UNC could do something super retro, and go play its home games at historic Carmichael Arena across campus. Same thing with the North Carolina State Wolfpack. They could decide to pack up and play all of their games back at Reynolds Coliseum. (I’m not including Duke here, because they already play home games at tiny little Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the only place that’s more intimate might be the racquetball court at the Brodie Recreation Center).
Why I’m Obsessed
As a connoisseur of dead sports venues, I want nothing more than for athletes to play in facilities that have been declared obsolete. I think this comes from watching the Browns play at Cleveland Municipal Stadium when I was a kid. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for how terrible, icy cold, crumbly, and unfriendly that place was. The place had urinal troughs in the restrooms. Urinal troughs! A frightening, yet fascinating detail. The seats gave you splinters. The sight lines were terrible. And yet, an architect in the 1930s and several sports teams expected you to pay money to go there. All of that is fascinating to me. (Side note: If you’re masochistic enough to watch a traditionally wretched team, it feels right to watch them play in a historically awful stadium. The Cleveland Browns do not deserve a nice home. They deserve a pre-fab double-wide that you order from the back of a catalog.)
I’ve also done serious research on what it would take to bring sports venues back to life. Over the last decade, I wrote about what it would take for NASCAR to return to a pair of dead racetracks in North Carolina. I was there in 2012 when Rockingham actually a Truck Series race, but that idea died after a year. North Wilkesboro, which isn’t being used for much of anything except for American Aquarium music videos and a cameo in Cars 3, has about a zero chance of ever seeing anything NASCAR ever again. You would literally have to start the rehab by doing what Dale Earnhardt Jr. did: Weed whacking the racing surface.
In NASCAR’s case, you’d need millions of dollars in upgrades to bring tracks back to life. But in the case of UNC and State, their former homes have been renovated and are still in use. In fact, both teams played in them LAST SEASON. So, with the pandemic taking live fans out the equation at college basketball games, here’s the question: Why don’t they just move their home games back to their old arenas?
I put that out there on Twitter, and gathered some good guesses. Then I just straight up asked the folks in charge at UNC and State directly. Here’s what I found:
Did you know that during the Tar Heels’ tenure at Carmichael Arena, they only lost 20 games there? That’s it. Twenty. I’ll say it again, between 1965 and 1986, UNC went 169-20 at their home arena. The only head coach during that entire time was Dean Smith. Michael Jordan played all of his college home games there. It was small by today’s standards but also stupid loud, on account of the low ceilings and the fans that sat right on top of the action. It also used to have the old style of overhead lighting that made every old photo of the place look like it was taken by Neil Leifer.
Since leaving in 1986, the men’s basketball team at UNC has returned to Carmichael two times, both because of scheduling conflicts. The first time was an NIT game in 2010 against William & Mary. The game moved there because of renovations that were underway at the Smith Center. Then, in 2019, the Heels went back to Carmichael again to play Wofford because the Smith Center was being used for winter commencement. UNC lost to the Terriers during what was one of the worst seasons in recent memory. But! The end of the season got cut off because of the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic so lol nothing matters.
The Tar Heels have 12 home games scheduled this season, and it’s unclear exactly how many fans might be able to watch in person. At the first game, a win over the College of Charleston, only a handful of people were let into the Smith Center. So, if there aren’t going to be fans in the stands, why not move games over to Carmichael, where maybe the ghosts can give them an edge?
In North Carolina, large outdoor venues are currently allowed to fill only 7 percent of their seating capacity, but there’s no clearly-defined restriction on indoor sports arenas. Right now, no more than 10 people are allowed to gather inside. When restrictions get rolled back, it’s possible that playing in a bigger arena would mean more people are allowed in, but that doesn’t explain why you couldn’t go to Carmichael for the time being.
As with anything in life, everything that seems cool is always doomed by scheduling, right? Carmichael is currently home to women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, women’s gymnastics, and wrestling. Dropping in some men’s games would make things harder. But, it could be done.
It’s true, UNC has upgraded its locker rooms and video boards over the last decade, although the university says the Smith Center needs more renovations (or to be replaced completely). There’s no timetable for that. But, again, Carmichael has up-to-date locker rooms, and is a working facility. Why not put on some short short and retro unis and play there?
I asked Steve Kirschner, the longtime communications guy in the UNC athletic department. Turns out, it’s a familiarity thing. “One, the Smith Center is the men’s team’s home facility and they would like to play in the facility that it is home to them,” he said in an email. “Also, we have more room to space out the teams, both on the court and in the back areas.” You can see that in footage from the Charleston game, where players on the bench are spaced way out, and the lower seating has been pulled back. But there’s more you can’t see. “[We] can space out radio crews, TV announcers, camera crews, stats crews and other people that work the game,” Kirschner wrote. It appears that the Tar Heels are taking two of the tenets of the COVID-19 era to heart. They’re staying home, and they’re social distancing. The bigger the arena, the easier it is to spread out.
Over in Raleigh, North Carolina State’s Old Barn looks better than it ever has. The site of some legendary Jim Valvano-led teams underwent a big renovation in 2005 and again in 2015 (it now has air conditioning!). Just like Carmichael, Reynolds Coliseum is home to women’s basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, and wrestling. It was also legendarily loud. The arena is smaller than Carmichael (only 5,500 seats) and is much older: It was finished in 1949 to host, among other things, gatherings of farmers. Wait. The Old Barn. I GET IT NOW.
The Wolfpack men have been playing home games across town at PNC Arena for about two decades now. So, again, same question. With no fans, why not just move back to Reynolds Coliseum for a season that’s made for TV and not for ticket sales?
The guesses were about the same as they were for UNC, but this is a bit of a trick question, because State already has two games scheduled for this season at Reynolds. In fact, the Wolfpack men play there at least once a year. They’re called Heritage games, which is cool and all, but during normal times, it obviously makes much more business sense to put home games at PNC. That arena, which is out there off of Wade Avenue on the west side of Raleigh, can hold four times as many people. Still, though, with no fans allowed, why not move even more games back on campus?
Well, they might be trying to do that. “We have not announced our plans in entirety for this season,” Fred Demarest, NC State’s Senior Associate Athletics Director, wrote me in an email. “We do have an operating agreement to play a number of games in PNC annually and are working to see what is possible under our current circumstances.” Unlike at UNC, which controls both arenas, PNC Arena is run by an authority, and is not owned by the university. NC State has already asked PNC to lower its rent. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, State pays the authority $58,000 per game, but wants to lower it to $13,925 per game, which State says would cover the operating costs for playing in a nearly empty facility. That plan hasn’t been fully approved, far as I can tell, and so everybody seems to be playing a little bit coy. (UPDATE: Nah, they’re gonna play at PNC this season.)
There is a bit of crossover between UNC and State when it comes to old arenas though. The last regular game at Carmichael, in 1986, was a convincing 90-79 Tar Heel win over NC State where Dean Smith put his team into the four corners offense with 2:46 to go. But State’s coach went out of his way to score the last bucket at Carmichael. According to The New York Times, “[Jim] Valvano, dressed in a suit, grabbed a basketball and deftly sank a layup before heading to the locker room.” You might call that a Jimmy V Classic.
I, Jeremy Markovich, am a journalist, writer, and producer based outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. If you liked this, you might like Away Message, my podcast about North Carolina’s hard-to-find people, places, and things. Season 4 was all about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Author avatar by Rich Barrett.
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