It is not too common that a school has one official name, while its athletic teams have a different name. This is the case, though, in North Carolina's Queen City. The Charlotte 49ers are the athletic teams for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, primarily because of the school's desire to establish a single athletic identity. This athletic identity will continue to be shaped with the addition of a football program at the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level for the 2013 season.
This is not to say that there is no athletic history on the school's campus, however. Then known as UNC Charlotte, the 49ers reached the NCAA Final Four in 1977, led by future Boston Celtic Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell. The school has also registered 11 NCAA tournament appearances, five conference tournament championships and five regular season conference championships since beginning its program in 1965.
Charlotte's basketball teams call Halton Arena their home. Built in 1996, this on-campus facility also hosts the James H. Barnhardt Student Activity Center. The building makes for an interesting and unique atmosphere for home games, and is a great addition to a school with a plethora of beautiful athletic facilities.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Halton Arena has the unusual benefit of housing a student center, as we previously mentioned. This allows for a food court type of feel on the main concourse, and there are plenty of choices available within a rather short walking distance.
The options include a number of the so-called "standards". Chains like Papa John's and Bojangles' also take up residence in the food court area, allowing for a pretty reasonable meal for all types of eaters. Some of the items are common across the different stands, including beverages, popcorn, and nachos. The nachos ($3) seemed to be a pretty popular choice, aided by their portability.
There are also stands for burgers (The Burger Stop) and hot dogs (Norm's Franks and Snacks). The Burger Stop offers quarter-pound hamburgers and cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and french fries, with the combo baskets (cheeseburger with fries $5.75, hot dog with fries $6) among the better deals. Norm's offers foot-long hot dogs ($4 for the hot dog, $5.25 for "all the way"), regular hot dogs ($3.25/$4.50), and brats ($4.50/$5.50), along with candy and cotton candy ($2.50), soft pretzels ($2.25), and a popcorn tub ($4).
Coca-Cola is the campus' bottler, with bottled sodas and 22-ounce cups at $2.75 and 32-ounce souvenir cups for $3.75. Powerade and water are also available at several of the stands.
I'm not honestly sure what I expected before entering Halton Arena, but what I got was an incredibly loud crowd for the size of the place. The arena is somewhat intimate, meaning most of the sound stays around you instead of escaping to the rafters or out to the concourse. The student section also plays a gigantic role in this noise, as the students are seated in section 104 at center court. The students get involved before the opening tip, and they stay loud until the final buzzer.
The arena seats just over 9,000 fans, so just about every seat in the house is a great seat. Some of the seats that are furthest from the floor are in a bit more darkness than the others because of the angles of the lighting, so if that makes any difference, you may want to sit a bit closer or further away. The scoreboard at center court is huge, and it also affords you the chance to watch the game as it takes place. A running tally of each player on the court's points, fouls, and other statistics is also available alongside the video feed.
The 49er pep band takes up residence behind the basket nearest the visiting bench, and for a fairly small group, they are quite loud. The band plays during some of the media timeouts and other game breaks. There are also pre- and post-game performances. The school also employs a dance team, their cheerleaders, and their mascot, Norm the Niner to accompany the band.
UNC Charlotte has a quite large campus, and Halton Arena is in the middle of that campus. Due to that location, there is not a lot to do that is within walking distance. Most of the nightlife and dining choices are along University City Boulevard (North Carolina Highway 49) or WT Harris Boulevard (NC 24) and are a mile or so away. There are a number of gathering places that fit this description, with Macado's, Cheddar's, and Amalfi Pizza & Pasta among them. Ciro's, Thai House, and Bad Dog American Pub are also quite popular with the locals.
As with many of the venues around Charlotte, if the choices nearby are not enough for your taste, you can always proceed north a few miles to Concord Mills Mall or south to center-city Charlotte. Shopping, bars, dancing and sightseeing are within a short drive of UNC Charlotte, assuming you have a vehicle available.
Charlotte draws rave reviews for their student section, and that alone rates them a high score. The game I attended was nationally televised on NBC Sports Network, and it drew a rather raucous group into Halton Arena. Chants of "Forty!" from one side of the arena, followed by "Niners!" on the other side were heard throughout the night.
The group in attendance on the night I visited was smart, involved from beginning to end and very lively. There was even some playful heckling (nothing personal, of course) going on between the Charlotte student sections and the visiting Georgia Southern players. I would love to see more fans in the stands (only 5,800-plus were there on that night), but as the 49ers continue to rebuild their program and win games, one would imagine more fans will occupy those seats.
Anyone flying to Charlotte from a conference opponent's outpost would quite likely select Charlotte Douglas International Airport as their destination. The airport is within 15-20 minutes of the university, and is accessed by Interstates 85, 77 or 485. A number of US and North Carolina highways also connect to the airport. Charlotte's bus system, CATS, also allows access from the airport to the university via the 5 and 11 buses. This option will take a little over an hour, however, so be prepared for the delay if this is your chosen route.
Parking at Halton Arena is reasonably easy - once you find where you are going, of course. From the main entrance on NC 49, follow the signs around the campus to Halton Arena. Parking is in the West Deck, and is free. Be careful, though, as the West Deck is somewhat tough to find, with the deck being labeled on the side by the entrance and not from the main road. When you see the track and the rest of the athletic complex on the left, the deck is across the street. Traffic guides will lead you to the appropriate places to park.
With the Student Activities Center in the "lobby" area of the arena, it is quite easy to move inside the facility. The ticketing office is outside the main entrance, so this also frees up a bit of room inside the lobby. The concourse area inside the arena is spacious enough to prevent bottlenecks, and the bathrooms in the lobby area are clean and plentiful. The lone drawback is that the concession and bathroom areas being on this main level prevents you from seeing the action, but the lines move quickly enough so that you will not miss much of the action.
If you want to see big-time basketball at small-time prices, Halton Arena is your place. Tickets for a 49er game start at $10, with the most expensive seat available for purchase at $25. Charlotte plays a rather high level of competition each year, which adds to the value.
My usual test involves the price for a ticket, hot dog, soda, parking, and a program. Charlotte offers great value, with a ticket ($10), hot dog ($3.25 for a regular, $4 for a foot-long), soda ($2.75 or $3.75), and parking/program (both free) coming in well under $20 per person. If you want great entertainment at a great price, you can't do a lot better than Charlotte basketball.
I mentioned before that Charlotte has quite a bit of history for a "young" program, and the school pays tribute to that homage in multiple ways. There are a series of banners hanging above the floor honoring all the postseason teams in 49er history, including a special banner for the 1977 Final Four team. There are also a series of retired jerseys honored along the wall in Halton Arena, with a banner for former coach Jeff Mullins and his 182 victories as the 49er coach.
The scoreboard in the end zone features a "Three-o-Meter" that keeps track of made three-point shots throughout the game. Some schools have signs or some other form of keeping track of the threes, and though this may seem like a superfluous stat, it is at least nice to be able to see how many of them have fallen throughout the game.
Norm the Niner was also mentioned earlier, and one of his assigned activities throughout the game is to man the t-shirt gun. The gun fires multiple t-shirts into the crowd at random intervals via a multi-barreled gun. If there's one thing college kids love it's free stuff, and free t-shirts are always a nice touch.
The school shows an ESPNU "Pride of the Program" video during the halftime break that lets fans who may not be fully familiar with the program's history get some background into Charlotte basketball. Maxwell, Mullins, and many of the school's former and current greats are chronicled in the video. This provides a nice personalized touch for those in the stands, and it may even prove educational for some in attendance.
Finally, Charlotte basketball is carried over Charlotte's ESPN Radio affiliate, 730 AM. The play-by-play announcer, Matt Swierad, is also the play-by-play voice of the Charlotte Knights, the AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Swierad is one of the best in the business, and provides a solid voice to 49er hoops. If you bring a radio to the game - and can manage to hear it inside the arena - a great broadcast awaits you. Swierad also conducts post-game interviews over the in-house PA system, so this also might be a good touch for which to stay around after the game.
Despite Charlotte having less than 50 years of basketball, there is still a fairly equal amount of history and potential in the program. With a large campus in a bustling city, a quality program, and an outstanding facility in Halton Arena, it is easy to see why fans and prospects alike should flock here. Once the school regains its winning tradition and gets its football program established, this well-kept secret should be discovered by that many more interested parties.
Sightlines aren't great, especially low in the upper deck near the staircases. But otherwise you can't ask for a better college basketball environment.
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