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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Charlotte, North Carolina, is a renowned sports town. You see, the Queen City hosts the Hornets, Panthers, Knights, Checkers and any number of professional and collegiate teams. The city even submitted a bid -- albeit one that was not selected -- to host the College Football Playoff in future years.
30 minutes southeast of Charlotte, you'll find the town of Wingate. The community of nearly 3,500 members rests along US Highway 74, and is one of the locations seen by vacationers heading toward Wilmington and the North Carolina beaches. Wingate University sits in the center of that town.
Founded nearly 120 years ago, the 2,700-student university is the alma mater of former United States Senator Jesse Helms. The school also sponsors 22 sports at the NCAA Division II level. The Bulldogs' football team calls Irwin Belk Stadium home.
Belk, whose name can be found on any number of athletics complexes around the Carolinas (North Carolina A&T, Johnson C. Smith University, UNC Charlotte, etc.), thanks to donations to those programs, also has his name on Wingate's facility. The stadium, built in 1998, seats 3,500 fans. The Bulldogs compete in the South Atlantic Conference, composed of schools in North Carolina, South Carolina and northeastern Tennessee.
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".
Sure, there's no food court or anything similar at a Wingate game, but there is no fear of going hungry. There is a sizeable stand on the home concourse, with a smaller stand behind the visiting bleachers. Entree options include hot dogs ($2), pizza slices ($2), nachos ($2.50) and chicken sandwiches ($3). If you'd rather have a snack, the stands offer soft pretzels ($1.50), popcorn ($1), chips ($1) and candy ($1).
Pepsi serves as the bottler for the stadium, with bottled sodas (Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Diet Mountain Dew, Mountain Dew and Sierra Mist) priced at $2. Non-carbonated drinks (Aquafina and Gatorade) are also available, for those who prefer to skip sodas.
Hot chocolate is also listed at $1; however, be sure to check before making any plans to enjoy a warm beverage. The day we visited was a cool fall day (not cold, thankfully), but hot chocolate was not available, despite being listed on the board.
There are also two separate stands on either side of the press box that serve frozen drinks. Seven flavor choices are available. They can be purchased for $3 (two scoops), $4 (three scoops) or $5 (four scoops).
One item does bear mention for those who plan to enjoy a bite or a drink at a game. The concession stands do not take credit cards (though, oddly, the ticket office does). There is also not an ATM in the facility. There is, however, a pay phone, for some odd reason. If you plan to indulge, bring a ten-dollar bill.
Despite Irwin Belk Stadium being a smaller venue, it still presents many of the same elements found in larger facilities. The elements that are commonly not found in larger facilities may be the ones that make your experience that much better, however.
The facility offers plenty of room to move. Fans enter onto a wide concourse on the home side of the stadium, with a statue of the Wingate bulldog there to greet all who enter the gates. The back of the stadium's press box is also straight ahead. Once you navigate around either side of the press box, a view of the field -- and the surroundings of the athletics complex beyond it -- opens up before you. This view is particularly beautiful as the seasons start to change, as the leaves on the trees in the distance show off many different colors.
The hills on the home side of the field provide entertainment for the young fans. Kids often grab pizza boxes -- or any other cardboard they can find -- and slide down the hill while the game goes on. This takes place at some other schools, but it's a huge hit with the kids. Also, the field is lined in hedges, similar to places like Georgia's Sanford Stadium. Fans can even stand along the hedges and watch the game. Be careful during warm weather, though, as the hedges are holly and tend to attract insects.
Seats on the home side are largely bleachers, and are accessed from the concourse atop them. There are sections of chairback seats near the 50-yard line, however. These seats are reserved, and though they do have chairbacks, they are slightly narrow. Also, as the game goes on, fans tend to move from the general admission seats into the reserved chairbacks. All of the seats on the home side offer a great view of the action. It may be wise to consider seats a few rows off the field, as the players on the sideline may block your view a bit. The visiting side is smaller and offers the same challenges, along with the same benefits. Getting to the visiting side requires the navigation of steps down the stands and a walk behind the end zone, however. The playing surface is pristine, but be careful when walking through the grass behind the end zone, particularly after the all-too-common fall rains in the Carolinas.
The stadium also offers a feature not commonly found at facilities at the level at which Wingate competes. A video scoreboard can be found just behind the end zone to the left of the seating on the home side. The board shows a pre-game show, entrance videos, live action and replays during the game, and much more. There is also a large display of the pertinent game information (score, time remaining, time outs and the like) throughout the game. Interestingly enough, many of the players on both sides watch the video board to see what takes place on the field while the ball is at the opposite end of the field from which they are standing. An auxiliary scoreboard with the score and time remaining sits opposite the video board in the other end zone, near the field house.
Requisite with the size of the school, Wingate offers a small band. The group plays throughout the game and puts on a show at the half. Further, every Bulldog first down features the typical 'call-and-answer' first down interplay between the game announcer and the fans, followed by a brief cadence from the band. The cadence, interestingly, is not associated with the school's fight song.
Wingate is, as many towns along 74 are, a typical North Carolina small town. There is a great sense of community there, but not much in terms of "big-box" shopping or larger dining establishments.
For dining or other entertainment, it makes the most sense to head west along 74 to the outer Charlotte suburb of Monroe. Monroe is a five-to-ten-minute drive from Wingate (depending on traffic lights), and offers dining options for just about any palate. Chain steakhouses Quincy's and Logan's Roadhouse are along the route, along with any other number of choices. Monroe also offers a moderately-sized mall, should you feel the urge to pick up an item or two. If seeing Charlotte is also on your list, you can stay along 74 and find yourself in the Uptown district in 45 minutes.
Monroe also offers the usual chain hotels, for those who wish to come to a game and stay the night. Choices are available to fit almost any budget.
It may not stand to reason that a stadium with a few thousand fans could be all that loud. Trust me, however, in saying that Wingate sounds a lot louder than it may appear.
Big plays for the Bulldogs are met with a roar from the home side, as might be expected. However, there is not as much of the usual burial of faces in phones at Irwin Belk Stadium as other venues. Fans know they have a good team, and the sense of community we mentioned earlier creates more engagement from the opening whistle to the final play.
It should also be noted that we visited on a day when Wingate played one of their main rivals, North Greenville University. This created a spirited atmosphere from both the home side and the fans who made the two-hour trek from Upstate South Carolina. Though NGU is not a conference foe, the proximity of most South Atlantic Conference schools helps make for fun crowds at Wingate games.
Irwin Belk Stadium is quite maneuverable once you enter the gates, especially if you are seated on the home side. Getting there, however, is a bit of a different story.
There is a reasonable amount of parking available just steps from the stadium entrance -- assuming, of course, that you are there for the home team. A large, mostly grass lot is there for parking, which is free. The earlier you can arrive, the better, as the parking quickly fills up and fans park on the sides of Camden Road. The parking for the away side is further back on Camden Road toward the campus, and can result in a somewhat long walk along the road with no sidewalks. Therefore, it's probably advisable to arrive early and park on the home side. Local police control the traffic after games, so even though the roads are a bit more rural, there is a manageable traffic flow.
There is one main ticket booth and set of gates in front of the home side. Lines are well-managed and quickly move, so there is no fear of standing for long periods while waiting to purchase a ticket or gain entry. Tickets are also available on the school's website, should you wish to buy them in advance.
There is not really a transit option to the Wingate campus, aside from driving on US Highway 74. 74 is a four-lane highway that moves rather well, except for an abundance of traffic lights between Charlotte and Monroe. If fans wish to fly in to see a game, Charlotte International Airport (CLT) is approximately 45 minutes away from the campus.
Inside the stadium, the concourse is easily navigated. There are ample restroom facilities on both the home and visiting sides, and they are fully maintained and operational.
Some fans might be turned away from a place like Wingate, because the Bulldogs play at the Division II level. However, if you're looking to watch NCAA football at a reasonable price, it's really tough to beat a Wingate game.
Tickets are reasonably priced ($12 for general admission, $16 for the reserved seats). When you add the cost of a general admission ticket ($12), a hot dog ($2), a drink ($2) and parking (free), you can come in well under $20 for an individual, or just over $60 for a family of four. When comparing it to, say, North Carolina and its cost of about $300 for a family of four, the choice is pretty obvious.
Wingate offers a professionally-produced Game day program to fans for $5. This is more of a souvenir, as all of the information found in the program can be found on the university's website. If you want a quality book to look back on the game you attended, this is a worthwhile option.
The school operates a merchandise tent, located between the concession stand and the hill that accesses the field house. Shirts, hats and almost any other logo item fans may want to purchase are available at the tent. Be aware, however, that the tents are usually taken down at the start of the second half. Buy early!
The surroundings have already been mentioned, but the nearby parking and view beyond the stadium's confines bear more discussion. The athletic complex is in a rural, semi-wooded setting, allowing for an interesting contrast between the loud environment inside the stadium and the serene wooded areas outside it.
Wingate has a very robust communications program, with its campus television station (WUTV) helmed by a former reporter from Charlotte's CBS affiliate. Part of that program includes the Wingate Sports Network's agreement with ESPN3. This allows fans and alumni to watch Wingate games worldwide, and allows students who are part of the program to get hands-on experience in production, reporting and other aspects of a television broadcast. This is great for fans and potential employees alike.
Finally -- and most importantly -- the fabled Southern charm is on display at any Wingate game. The town is much more of a community, and any person you encounter at a Bulldog contest greets you with a smile and a conversation. The old saying about never having met a stranger is a bit overused, but it is absolutely the case when visiting Irwin Belk Stadium. This was on display the day we visited, as the university was conducting a day in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. All of the campus' sports teams presented a local girl with various small gifts (flip-flops, sunscreen, etc.), leading up to the granting of the girl's wish, a Caribbean cruise. If that weren't enough, the girl was also surprised with a scholarship to Wingate for the cost of attendance, celebrating her academic achievements and desire to attend her hometown school. This was an awesome touch.
Wingate is not the largest institution in North Carolina, and does not offer the highest enrollment. If you want a comfortable, fun place to watch a game around good people, though, it's tough to beat a Saturday afternoon at Irwin Belk Stadium. Whether or not you view this hidden gem a destination, pull your car off US Highway 74 and take in a few hours of entertainment. You'll be glad you did.
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502 W Roosevelt Blvd
Monroe, NC 28110
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2505 W Roosevelt Blvd
Monroe, NC 28110