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The ticket: Why we shouldn’t move the football championships out of big stadiums

The most frequent question that comes up each year after the N.C. High School Athletic Association football championships is a familiar one, but a good one to ask: “Why don’t they play these games in a smaller stadium so it doesn’t look so bad?”

If I said that the emptiness of the larger stadiums isn’t distracting, I’d be lying. 

Even if both teams brought 5,000 people each, that leaves about 20,000-45,000 empty seats.

North Carolina is not the only state that plays its football championships in big venues. South Carolina uses Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, which seats more than 80,000 — bigger than all four ACC stadiums that the NCHSAA uses, and it too is nowhere close to looking full. Texas famously uses 100,000-seat AT&T Stadium (home of the Cowboys) and will actually draw enough fans to fill the lower bowl.

No one (OK, no one under the age of 40) is suggesting going back to having either the West or the East champ hosting championship games, but they do suggest playing these contests at smaller stadiums like N.C. Central, North Carolina A&T, or Charlotte. 

Here are the two main problems with this and why I ultimately am on the side with continuing to play NCHSAA championships at these venues.

Reidsville’s coach Jimmy Teague celebrating the win. Northeastern Eagles vs Reidsville Rams meet for the NCHSAA 2018 Football – 2A Championship at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday, Dec, 15th, 2018. Carl Copeland for EducationNC

First, I believe this is best for the kids.

If you were a high school kid and someone told you that you were going to play a game at an ACC venue, you’d be pretty excited would you not? So long as your friends and family were present, would you care about the stadium’s capacity? That’s a story you can tell for the rest of your lifetime.

Tim Stevens, my former coworker at The N&O and NCHSAA hall-of-famer, had an interesting perspective on this after his son played in an NCHSAA championship game at Kenan Stadium. He said the stadium was one of his son’s most cherished memories about that day.

Next, you have to understand that the NCHSAA has great working relationships with these ACC hosts, particularly N.C. State and North Carolina, which both host championships in basketball and baseball. N.C. State also hosts boys and girls soccer, softball, and volleyball. 

So what seems easy to us — why not take the games from one big location to a smaller one? — isn’t quite that easy at all. It requires the NCHSAA to back out or end one agreement to enter into a new one and, by doing so, possibly ruffling the feathers of a good host that also lets you use other facilities. 

Can you imagine the uproar if the NCHSAA were to lose out on hosting basketball championships at the Dean Smith Center and Reynolds Coliseum because it didn’t have the foresight to see negative consequences? All in all, so long as Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and North Carolina will have you play at their stadiums, you play there.

But about Charlotte…

Don’t mistake me entirely.

If the Carolina Panthers come forward and would like to host championship games, maybe the NCHSAA can add them into the rotation without taking away a school that has agreed to host out of the rotation. Sure, there would be many more empty seats at Bank of America Stadium, but see my first point and know that this too would be a can’t-pass-up opportunity for the student-athletes involved.

It seems that around this time each year, fans and media from Charlotte are the most vocal about moving an NCHSAA championship to their backyard. 

I’m not opposed, but from what I can tell, the longing for Charlotte to host high school events extends to only coaches and media and not to the decision-makers who would have a say.

For instance, I thought Charlotte would, at a minimum, make a great host for the NCHSAA’s western basketball regional finals. But those are going to be played in the greater Hickory area this year. It makes me wonder if anyone in Charlotte made any effort at all, or if they’ve made any effort in other sports. The Triangle is in good hands to get these events thanks to the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, and Greensboro has the Greensboro Sports Commission to help it keep big NCHSAA events. 

Charlotte could potentially host ACC Men’s Basketball Championships, the NBA All-Star Game, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and the 2020 Republican National Convention in an eight-year span. We know they’re good hosts. We just don’t know that they’ve asked to host for the NCHSAA. 

And I’d love to see that change.

Shelby receiver Diavonni Daley (6) celebrates the second of his two first half touchdowns with teammate Jaylon Scott (5). The North Davidson Black Knights played against the Shelby Golden Lions for the NCHSAA 2AA Football State Championship on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. Ray Black III for EducationNC
J. Mike Blake

J. Mike Blake is an English teacher at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh and a contributor to He covered high school sports for a variety of newspapers in The News & Observer Publishing Company for 10 years and won 14 N.C. Press Association awards. He is also the only two-time winner of the N.C. Soccer Coaches Association’s media person of the year award.