RBC Center Filling Fine

20010421-44 Is Mickey McCarthy back from the dead? Today’s News & Observer Sports section features a hit-piece on the RBC Center by Caulton Tudor. The article implies that NCSU’s basketball attendance in the RBC Center is so poor, that NCSU should have stayed in Reynolds. It offers historical recounts by Tom Fetzer, Herb Sendek, and perennial Play-In-Game mastermind Les Robinson. When the RBC Center was merely a proposed project, each said that the planned building was too big, and NCSU basketball would suffer. Unfortunately the arguments put forth by these three as well as Tudor, ignore key factors and give weight to irrelevant ones.

Tom Fetzer, the Raleigh mayor when the RBC Center was being planned, pushed strongly that Raleigh get an arena comparable to, but slightly bigger than, the Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem. After NCSU was unable to secure funding from the state, the plan to bring in a professional hockey team was proposed, essentially requiring a complete redesign of the building and a new revenue structure.

What Fetzer never seemed to understand is that since the late 80’s, the NHL’s new buildings have an average capacity of 18,723. To build something that only could seat 17,000 for basketball (just over 16,000 for hockey) in the modern era would preclude attracting a hockey team to Raleigh or the signing of a market-rate naming rights deal. Raleigh isn’t the city that screwed up, Winston-Salem is. Had NCSU gone it alone and built a 17,000 seat basketball arena, they would be the only tenant in a second-rate building that would lose as much money per year as the Smith Center in Chapel Hill does. Guess who pays that bill, Mr. Republican Party?

The article reveals that Herb Sendek, coach at the time of construction, warned that the building would be an “unmitigated disaster” if its capacity exceeded 17,500 for basketball. What turned out to be a disaster was Herb’s ability to field a team to interest the fan base. Sendek led the Wolfpack to five straight NCAA tournament appearances, yet only averaged attendance in the 14,000 range (still greater than Reynolds Coliseum’s capacity).

So why did average attendance during Sendek’s tenure fall so far short of the capacity of his ideal building? Probably because of Herb’s inability to recruit more than a handful of potential NBA players, his persistent scheduling of irrelevant non-conference foes, and the playing style of his teams. Upon Sendek’s departure his supporters said that Herb will finally go “somewhere he is appreciated”. Really? If Arizona State is that place, then why did only 7,948 bother to show up for last week’s game against Baylor? Why did only 6,800 people show up for the Arkansas-Pine-Bluff game just after the team had taken Duke to the bitter end on national television? Those numbers would make Reynolds look cavernous. On TV, his 14,000-seat arena looked absurd.

Large or small, it isn’t the arena that wins games. UNC and Kentucky have moved to bigger buildings and remained nationally significant. UNC won 89.4% of its games in Carmichael Auditorium. Since moving to the Smith Center in 1986, UNC has won 84.8% of its games. Were it not for the disastrous 3-season tenure of a bad, emotionally unstable coach, UNC’s records in both buildings would be comparable. In fact, UNC’s rate of trips to the Final Four and National Championships has actually improved since moving to the Smith Center.

In the final 19 years in Reynolds Coliseum NCSU won only 70.4% of their home games. They have won 74.4% of their games in the RBC Center. While attendance is not where many had hoped, it still is vastly higher than it was those many nights in Reynolds when the end zone seats were empty. What would attendance be if NCSU had won 2 of the last 5 national championships?

If Les Robinson’s assertion that a loud arena is worth 5 points a game were true, wouldn’t we see a distinct decline in a program’s performance after moving to a bigger arena? Wouldn’t we see schools with small arenas becoming the cream of the crop in the NCAA? Wouldn’t Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Syracuse be on the decline while Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech be roaring to the top? Wrong, Les. If Mike Krzyzewski’s team played in a 20,000 seat arena in downtown Durham, it would still be one of the nation’s top teams.

I went to about 400 games in Reynolds, and only on about 5 occasions did I hear that building get louder than the RBC Center during Davidson’s NCAA tournament run. How often did Reynolds reach the 119dB level seen several times during the Carolina Hurricanes playoff runs? Not often. The RBC Center can be the most feared hall in America, it just needs a team that can pull it off.

Once State puts a product on the court worthy of our time, the fans will be there. In the meantime, it is more important for the fan with the 8,000th worst seat in the building to actually be able to see the game. (The press never sat in those Reynolds Coliseum seats). NCSU fans are no different than any other. When the team is winning and has a likable coach, the fans will swarm the RBC Center. At this point they have only ever had, at most, one of those keys during the RBC Center’s first 10 years..

  • Clarksa

    Unlike the N&O, you have a true understanding of the problem.

  • Brian

    Do you have any more info on the subject of the Dean Dome losing money? I hadn’t heard that before and am curious if you have a link to some numbers I can look at.

    There isn’t a whole lot other than basketball that goes on there, but there are a couple concerts, comedians, etc. that perform in the dean dome. That has to generate a least a marginal amount of revenue.

  • Charles

    Excellent points and great post.

    Too bad the N&O doesn’t spend the time on getting the facts, but is more interested in generating controversies. Their approach of relying on hit pieces instead of fact pieces is coming back to hurt them in revenues, and it will preclude any remorse when Raleigh ultimately loses its “hometown” paper, since they have never treated their ‘hometown” school well, or even fairly.

    In any event, thank you for taking the time to do this.

  • BoBromhal

    Bravo! As I said – if i didn’t know you weren’t a State fan…

    at least Caulton threw in Les’ “if you win, they will come” at the end, for those still reading after his salacious start.

  • Matt

    GREAT feedback there. Well put indeed.

  • Ken Metzger

    Well said, Dana. That article was complete trash. How they could ignore that attendance is base upon performance much more than the other way around is beyond me.

  • Hunter


    Great article, but you’ve made me go cross eyed! Are you a State fan or a Carolina fan? Eegads, you can’t be both!

  • Subway Scoundrel

    Good post !!! I read it and did find Fetzer kind of sugar coating his commitment to a new arena. Not sure I remember all the details but I always got the feeling he was taking “I’m against it” position after that position won him so much with the 1996 convention center push.

    I have heard him speak on the arena post-success and he likes to spin it like he was part of the solution. I thought the Centennial Authority guys kind of shot his kneecaps off in their response to his spin.

    The most progressive conversation I have heard in the last 2 years on where Raleigh goes next with a new arena in the next 15 to 20 years was Phillip Isley on 850buzz one morning. Maybe next time, since it will be Raleighs’ second pony ride with building an arena. the right moves will be made.

  • JeffS

    I just love to hear people defend the RBC center and wish for a new arena at the same time.

    “No, it wasn’t a waste of money, and the next one won’t be either”.


  • Albert

    Great post!

    And it’s pretty pointless for Tudor to point out attendance at low-interest games like the season openers.

  • lee

    great post! nicely done.

  • Adam

    Very interesting. I think you are definitely spot on. No one wants to go see their team lose. My only bit of scrutiny is where you wrote about UNC’s increased success in Final 4 appearances and Championship games since moving to the Smith Center. Since playoff games are played on neutral courts, that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Smith Center. Otherwise, a very strongly supported article in my opinion.

  • Dana

    Thanks, Adam. My point with UNC is a retort to Tudor’s implication that the larger, unfilled arena has made the program weaker. UNC shows an example where a team can move to a bigger, quieter facility and actually have more success as a program. That big, quiet Dean Dome didn’t seem to be the disadvantage to UNC, contrary to Tudor, Robinson, and Sendek’s arguments.

  • Doc

    Maybe it’s time for State fans to realize that interest in their program, no matter how successful, cannot support a 19,700 seat arena and that both Les Robinson and Herb Sendek knew what they were talking about.

    Attendance records from the NCAA show that, in general, attendance for NCSU basketball has averaged between 13,000 and 14,500 per season. This includes the early days of Herb Sendek before the bloom was off his rose and the program was on the rise recovering from the Les Robinson debacle. This number also includes the 2-3 times per season when NCSU actually sells out the building.

    So it appears to me that Robinson and Sendek had the number about right – NCSU can support a 16,000-17,000 seat arena for basketball. Attendance of 14,000 per night in a 16,000 seat arena looks pretty good.

    Thank goodness Saturday’s game, with an attendance of less than 4300, was played in Reynolds. How absurd would 4300 looked in a 19,700 seat arena?

  • Dana

    “Maybe it’s time for State fans to realize that interest in their program, no matter how successful, cannot support a 19,700 seat arena”

    Well, it is not time because that statement is completely wrong. In the late 80′s (the last time State had a talented AND non-repulsive coach), NCSU would have had excess demand for seats. The “problem” is the product being put on the floor, however given that the school has ranked in the Top 20 in attendance each year since being in the RBC Center, and has made money with the games, it is debatable that a “problem” even exists.

    Saturday’s game would have drawn more than twice as many people had it been played in the RBC Center. It was not included in the season ticket package, and families (like ours) didn’t feel like dealing with the parking and seating problems that Reynolds incurs.

    To twist your argument around, perhaps NCSU should never play any more games in Reynolds, given that only 4,300 bothered to show up for a game there. Fans keep moaning about Reynolds, yet when they actually play a game there, the event is a failure.

  • Doc

    “In the late 80’s (the last time State had a talented AND non-repulsive coach), NCSU would have had excess demand for seats.”

    According to the NCAA website, NCSU’s home attendance in 1989 (the last year NCSU won a share of the ACC regular season) was 9,124 per game, or 73% of Reynolds’ capacity of 12,500 (at that time). That is roughly equivalent to the 71% capacity average over the last 10 seasons NCSU has played in the RBC Center.

    Moreover, since moving to the RBC, State’s average attendance hasn’t varied more than about 1,500 people, regardless of whether or not the team was winning 20 and going to the NCAAs or having losing records 2 of the 10 years they have played there.

    Sorry, the weak excuse that poor attendance is caused by a poor product on the floor just doesn’t hold water. Clearly, with a season ticket base of 10,000, State needed a larger arena than Reynolds, and the old arena was far outdated for the 21st century. I’m not advocating that State should have stayed there.

    But, if you want to have some real fun, dig into WHY the arena had to become large enough for hockey (hint: it was because NCSU couldn’t raise their portion of the cost of the original Centennial Center)

  • Dana

    Well, actually NCSU raised their $20M portion. It was the State of North Carolina and the Raleigh City Council that dragged the process on for over 5 years. Felix Sabates wasn’t NCSU’s idea.

    If you are expecting NCSU to pony up 100% like the short-sighted, mis-designed large basketball gym in Chapel Hill, then you are not being very realistic. UNC came up with the money during a swell following the school’s first national championship in 25 years – after having gone to about 6 Final Fours. Not many programs in the country can pull off autonomous funding for a facility, and it wasn’t realistic to expect NCSU to.

    You’ve completely missed my point. When State was “winning 20″ (against the weakest ACC field in memory – until this year) they had a coach who was as exciting as white bread. Sendek’s team had giant game tonight against “USC Upstate”. The Sun Devils won by only 9 points, and a whopping crowd of 5,747 bothered to show up to watch. I suppose that the ASU arena of 14,000 is too big, too?

    The audacity of a coach that says anything is “too big” is just pitiful. The coach needs to be exciting the fan base and his players by dreaming big, talking big, and backing it up. That’s his job, and if he can’t pull it off, then someone else needs a chance.

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