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Official Review by Aaron S. Terry, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Dean Smith Center, or Dean Dome as it is colloquially known, is named after UNC’s legendary coach Dean Smith, who led the Tar Heels to two national championships, and coached the U.S. men's basketball team to a gold medal in 1976. Smith won the national Coach of the Year award four times, and is the fourth-winningest coach all time for men's Division I college basketball.
Prior to Dean Smith's arrival at UNC, the Tar Heels had a mediocre basketball program at best, so it was really his unprecedented success that created the need for the new arena. Smith coached at the Dean Dome for 11 years, making him one of a handful of coaches to coach at a venue named in his or her honor (similar to Bill Snyder at Kansas State, for example).
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The Dean Smith Center offers one stop shopping with lots of variety - there are loads of different items, but most of them are offered at the regular stands, so you don't have to go all the way to the other side of the arena to get what you want.
Main dishes include Papa John's pizza and wings, barbecue sandwiches, chicken sandwiches (Chick-fil-A brand or generic equivalents), Firehouse subs, hot dogs, and burgers, ranging in price from $5 to $10 (for some items, this price includes a side like chips or fries). Local favorites at the Dean Dome include chicken parmesan or cheesesteak sandwiches from Italian Pizzeria III, a student staple near campus, for $8 each with a side of chips. Strangely, the Italian Pizzeria does not offer pizza at the arena - I have to assume this is because Papa John's is the official pizza provider of the Tar Heels.
In addition to main dishes, you can also get pretzels for $4, and there are several different varieties of popcorn available for $5-$7. There is also Ben & Jerry's ice cream for $6-$7, two types of donuts for $5-$7 (Dunkin' Donuts or Hot & Fresh Mini Donuts), cookies and brownies for $4 each, and cotton candy for $6. Soda, water, and coffee can be had for $4, frozen lemonade for $5, iced coffee for $6, and smoothies for $6, $7, or $10 depending on the size.
The Dean Smith Center doesn't look like much from the outside, but is very well designed on the inside, with wide hallways and views onto the court from the concourse. There is a good crowd with a decent noise level during the game, and there is lots of Carolina blue to be seen, both on and above the court (in the form of banners showcasing past accomplishments), as well as in the concourse.
UNC's mascot Rameses' antics are a lot of fun to watch during the game, and there is a full-blown team store for all your game gear, which is a rarity, as most college arenas offer only satellite stands at their stadiums and arenas.
The UNC basketball museum is housed in a separate building next to the Dean Smith Center, but is not open during games, so if you want to view it you will need to arrive several hours early - the museum closes at 4 pm on weekdays, 1 pm on Saturdays, and is closed on Sundays, but has extended hours on game days.
Half surrounded by trees, and half surrounded by parking, the Dean Dome feels extremely isolated. There are some campus buildings within sight, but they are a little ways off up a hill, and mostly consist of dorms. Further out, there is only the hospital and some other campus buildings, so there isn't a lot to do before or after the game that is within walking distance - Franklin Street is really where you need to be (about a mile or two away from the arena).
Located near the center of campus, Franklin Street is the Mecca of restaurants and bars for UNC students. If you head that way, the Mellow Mushroom is a popular place to enjoy pizza and beer before or after the game, as is the aforementioned Italian Pizzeria III. If you aren't in the mood for pizza, Top of the Hill and Spanky's are upscale brewpubs that offer more traditional pub fare, as well as house brews, local beers, domestics, and imports.
Despite the high prices, tickets to UNC basketball games are very difficult to get, as the venue almost always sells out, so no one can say the fans are not committed. However, when it comes to game time, the student section is lively, but the rest of the fans are only so-so. While school colors are worn by most, most fans don't seem to really get into the game. They hazard a passable amount of noise at the appropriate times, and cheer loudly at the most exciting of dunks, but otherwise are rather ho-hum about the whole affair - one might even label them as supportive, rather than engaged. This could be due to the fact that they win almost too often - when the outcome of the game is so rarely in doubt, winning becomes merely satisfying and not gratifying.
Parking is a little problematic due to the semi-isolated location of the Dean Dome. While parking is available, you can't get too close, and traffic after the game is a nightmare, even for weekday games - on weekends, you can forget it. You are much better off to take a city bus; there are multiple stops on nearby Franklin Street and at other locations near campus ($3 each way or $5 round-trip). You could also take a cab, but it will cost 5-6 times as much. If you do choose to cab it, I recommend Super Ride, which is the most psychedelic cab ride you will ever find! Complete with flashing laser lights and a whirring smoke machine, other fans can't help but stop and stare as you arrive in flash and style.
Once you get inside the arena, the human traffic is a lot better - the concourse is wide, and it doesn't feel crowded despite the fact the center holds over 20,000 fans. There are plenty of bathrooms dotted around the venue, and they are very easy to find, as are the concession stands.
Want to know why the bathrooms and concession stands are so easy to find? Check out this video.
The value for the money all depends on how much you pay for your ticket - face value can be $70 or more for lower level, depending on the game, and they are hard to get, since most are reserved for Rams Club members. However, if you wait until just before tip-off, you can sometimes buy a ticket for half-price from a scalper outside, unless, of course, you choose the Duke game. Parking ranges from $7-$10, so it is cheaper to take the bus. Food inside the arena is on the high side compared to other college venues, on par with pro stadiums.
That said, UNC basketball is perennially popular, it seems they are always in the mix for the national title, so visiting at least once in your lifetime is definitely worthwhile. You may want to go early in the season, though, like maybe a non-conference game, perhaps even over Christmas break, which will make it easier to find inexpensive tickets, and the venue will be less crowded.
Seeing Michael Jordan's (retired) number proudly displayed high above the Tar Heels logo in the center of the court is a plus - arguably the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Remember however that he never actually played a game in the Dean Dome, as its doors opened two years after he joined the Bulls.
Another plus is that the Heels have won multiple National Championships, and this is where those teams played many of their games. As with MJ, however, none of the championships were actually won here at the Dean Dome, but at neutral sites far away.
The aforementioned basketball museum is also a nice feature, and is definitely worth a visit - the Tar Heels' storied program has enjoyed many great accomplishments over the years, which are on full display inside the museum. For evening games on weeknights, the museum is open until 6 pm, so you have plenty of time to visit before tip-off; on weekends, museum hours vary based on the game time.
The Dean Dome is a decent place to watch a basketball game, and you will most likely see the home team win, so be sure to wear the right shade of blue if you go. However, visiting the Dome is as much for the history of the team as it is for the arena itself, so make time to check out the Tar Heels' basketball museum as part of your game plan. In addition, UNC is one of the oldest universities in the U.S., so there is plenty of non-basketball history in the area to soak in as well.
Member Review by jharver
For the uninitiated guest, the walk up Skipper Bowles Drive and into the Dean Smith Center "" UNC's beloved "Dean Dome," home for the school's basketball teams and commencement ceremonies "" is a bit underwhelming. From the outside, it's another blocky brick relic of 80s-era architectural efficiency. Once inside, the worn, brownish concrete and fading Carolina blue paint complete the visual buzzkill...
And then you catch sight of that court.
It's only polished hardwood and Carolina blue, the same as the hallways that were putting your gameday high to sleep a second ago "" only now you couldn't possibly imagine college basketball in any other color. You've seen the stills and the videos, decades of archived footage punctuated by legendary names from Phil Ford, James Worthy, and Michael Jordan to Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, and Tyler Hansbrough.
Those first three played in the Carmichael Auditorium, of course, but it looks exactly the same.
From the museum next door to the promotional movies shown during TV timeouts and down to that Carolina blue, the Dean Dome experience is a baptism in the Tar Heels' rich basketball tradition.
Member Review by Josh Greene on Feb 12, 2013
Bland arena, annoying fans who think they're better than everyone because they couldn't get in to Duke. The student section sits in the second level. This is a venue for old people who don't really care. Very expensive tickets for an arena that seats 18,000.
Member Review by ianmccor on Apr 19, 2014
There are plenty of stadiums and arenas that are overrated because the home team is good. This is one of them.
Member Review by Tejasduck on Jan 28, 2015
The food and beverage inside the Dean E. Smith Center, aka, Dean Dome is typical food fare. However, with the restaurants around the campus there is really no need to focus on the concessions once inside the Smith Center.
The Dean Dome has the potential to have a great atmosphere with the 22,000 Carolina Blue seats, the championship banners, the history of the Carolina greats banners hanging from the rafters.A great college basketball atmosphere begins with the student body which UNC has a great one as they are definitely the loudest section, however, the crazy seating set up, of donors over students, keeps the UNC students from being on the same level as their rival over in Durham. For my first trip, I was pleasantly surprise at the easy access to the Dean Dome even though I parked at the baseball stadium, a short walk from the Dome. The history of Carolina basketball makes attending a Carolina basketball game in the Dean Dome a bucket list item for the college basketball fan.
Member Review by WolfBenz on Jan 09, 2016
In full disclosure, I'm not a fan of anything Carolina, so take that into consideration with my review. Carolina always has talent on the floor, but lacks enthusiasm in the stands and often lacks attendance. Sure they get up for a great rivalry game, but their fans often don't show up otherwise. The facility itself is nice, albeit average, and appropriately named for a great coach and gentleman. Nothing special about the arena beyond the name.
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