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  • Writer's pictureMichael Davis

Dean E. Smith Center – North Carolina Tar Heels

Photos by Michael Davis, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.57

Dean E. Smith Center 300 Skipper Bowles Dr Chapel Hill, NC 27599

Year Opened: 1986

Capacity: 21,750


Carolina Blue

The Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center is a multi-purpose arena for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The arena is commonly known as either the Dean Smith Center or the Dean Dome. The arena is named after the UNC’s legendary coach Dean Smith, who coached the Tar Heels basketball program from 1961-1997. Smith coached the last 11 years of his Tar Heels tenure in his namesake venue while becoming the 4th-all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 basketball.

The Dean E. Smith Center is the fourth-largest college basketball arena in the country at a seating capacity of 21,750. The first game at the Smith Center was on January 18, 1986 featuring #1 North Carolina vs #3 Duke. The hybrid dome is also used for non-basketball events such as university and local high school graduations.

Food & Beverage 3

The Dean E. Smith Center concessions are standard for sporting events. The variety of food and drinks are plentiful throughout the Dean Dome, but the items are all familiar to fans associated with stadium fare. The food services incorporate many national and local chain restaurants such as Hunt Bros Pizza, Jersey Mike’s, Backyard Bistro, Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Bojangle’s Chicken and Waffles. The food prices are the typical stadium fare pricing as a bacon cheeseburger, Philly cheesesteak, Italian sausage, or BBQ sandwich are at the $8 level, while a Chick-fil-A sandwich with chips or a Backyard half-pound Angus cheeseburger with chips are each $7. A slice of pizza is $6 while an all-beef hot dog, pretzel, or grande nachos cost $5.

Coca-Cola is the Dean Dome’s beverage provider. The beverage prices range between $5 and $7 for soda, Powerade, or water. The best food option value could be the bottomless popcorn for $10, which comes in a souvenir-type Carolina Tar Heels bucket. There are also plenty of sweets available for fans just wanting to have a snack, such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins, or candy.

Atmosphere 4

The Dean E. Smith Center exterior seems more like an academic building than an arena that hosts one of the premier college basketball programs in the country. However, there is plenty of signage around the Dean Dome to let people know that there is an event. Although there isn’t much of an atmosphere before the game, first time visitors should arrive early to visit the Carolina museum. The museum is open until three hours prior to the start of night games in the Smith Center, while for earlier games the museum is closed. However, fans should find time to visit the museum, as it will provide an inside look for Carolina Basketball.

Once leaving the dark arena concourses, the seating area becomes a beautiful Carolina blue. Seeing all the banners hung from the rafters is an incredible sight to witness. There are also four new large video boards in the corners of the Smith Center, with the Tar Heels band and dance team in one corner, and the student section on the baseline along with the spirit squad. The fans are engaged in welcoming the Tar Heels to the court for warm-ups and at game time, and during warm-ups UNC players are very good at making themselves accessible for photos and autographs.

The player intro is a good way to get excited to watch the game. UNC’s mascots Rameses and RJ entertain the crowd with their antics, and they can even be seen playing one-on-one during pre-game. These mascots, along with the dance team and spirit squads, keep the crowd entertained during time-outs and at halftime. The atmosphere becomes better as the fans become engaged in the game but scales up and down during the contest. Tar Heels fans can become loud at times, such as when the chant “Tar”…“Heels” is being performed, but then there are also lesser moments. But overall the atmosphere exceeds the standard college basketball game.

Neighborhood 4

The Dean Dome is on the southernmost part of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The Dean Dome is in a tree setting with the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School sitting above the trees, and across from student parking on Skipper Bowles Drive. The drive up the hill on Skipper Bowles Drive, at the intersection of Manning Drive, brings fans to the general parking garages and the UNC Medical district to the west. There are some campus buildings within sight, but continue on Ridge Rd or Stadium Drive to the middle of campus. When you reach South Road, walk thru the two campus quads and into the heartbeat of Chapel Hill’s neighborhood, Franklin Street.

Franklin Street is about a 1.3-mile walk uphill from the Dean E. Smith Center and is a must visit for first time visitors to Chapel Hill. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from along Franklin Street – Mellow Mushroom, Hops Burger Bar, Top of the Hill Restaurant, or Roots are all choices that would be good to patronize. However, Sutton’s Drug Store is a place that an out of towner should seek out and eat at in Chapel Hill. Sutton’s Drug Store has been a staple in Chapel Hill since 1923, and serves hand-crafted burgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches, including breakfast options.

There is also lodging on Franklin Street but the choices away from the restaurants and bars are more suitable. The Aloft-Chapel Hill or Courtyard by Marriott Chapel Hill would be better choices; both of these are near the UNC golf course. The Aloft is surrounded by plenty of restaurants while the Courtyard is perfect for the shuttle, as across the street is the Friday Center shuttle stop, which many fans use to get to UNC games.

There are a few tourist places in the area such as Chapel Hill itself, a beautiful college town that has plenty of history from being the home of the oldest public university in the country. The campus is worth walking through, from the Old Well, Carmichael Arena, and the Carolina Basketball Museum to the North Carolina botanical gardens, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, and the Ackland Art Museum.

Fans 4

The popularity of North Carolina extends past Tobacco Road – the Tar Heels success on the basketball court has created many Tar Heels fans that have never been to Chapel Hill. In addition, the fact that tickets to UNC basketball games can be very difficult to get, raising ticket prices above the average college basketball ticket price, should signify that the fans inside the Dean Dome are exceptional.

Well, it doesn’t translate – the student section located on the baseline near the UNC bench is very lively and loud during the game. The students are decked out, painted and garbed in Carolina blue. However, the remaining crowd has in the past been called a wine-and-cheese crowd. I think a lot of that has to do with the size of the Dean Dome. There are plenty of fans wearing Carolina Blue, however, the fans aren’t engaged the whole game. The fans are very knowledgeable, hitting all the appropriate times to cheer, especially on scoring runs and dunks, and they are without question a supportive group of fans, but overall just meet the expectations of a home crowd.

Access 2

The largest difficulty for out of town visitors in attending a Tar Heels game at the Smith Center is parking. The parking problem can be attributed to the Dean Dome being located on the southernmost point of the campus. While general parking is available for $10, these lots are not near the venue, as all the parking around the Dean Dome is Rams Club permit lots. Also, despite the campus police having a smooth ingress/egress system, the traffic after the game is a nightmare.

However, Chapel Hill Transit provides relief from the parking nightmare by providing shuttle service from local park & ride lots. The Tar Heel Express costs $5 round-trip or $3 one-way, and no parking fee is charged for any Tar Heels Express pick-up lot. The system is easy and cheaper than using the regular parking lots – passengers are issued wrist bands at the park & ride lot that indicate the appropriate bus for return trip boarding. All buses drop off and pick up in front of the Smith Center, with buses beginning operation from the park & ride lots 1.5 hours prior to game time until just after tip-off. Return trips begin immediately following the game. Alternatively, taxi services including Uber and Lyft may drop off and pick up passengers along Blythe Drive by accessing it from Bowles Drive, and exiting onto Hibbard Drive.

Once you arrive at the Dean Dome, access becomes easy as the venue has plenty of entrances around the building – the arena doors open 1.5 hours before tip-off. The UNC students are lined up early to get in position for their baseline seats. Note that the Dean Smith Center uses the clear bag policy – all bags must be clear plastic or vinyl bag no larger than 12″ x 6″ x 12″, including gallon freezer bags, or small clutch purses no larger than 4.5″ x 6.5″. Necessary medical items are also allowed in following inspection at the entry gates. You can also bring in up to two unopened 20oz or smaller bottles of water per person, and empty drink containers can be filled up at the drinking fountains. Additional information about the clear bag policy can be found on the UNC website.

Once inside the concourse is wide and has large signage showing the locations of seating sections, bathrooms, and concessions.

Return on Investment 3

In the past, ACC opponent tickets were almost impossible to get at face-value, and fans were forced to buy non-conference game tickets in order to see the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. However, there are now tickets available thru the box office, but a trip to Tobacco Road North Carolina for basketball can be expensive. North Carolina, despite having the 4th largest college basketball arena in the US, has one of the highest ticket prices in the country. For any seat in the lower level the face value can be $80 or more, while the upper level is $50 to $65, depending on the game.

The lower level is usually sold out since most are bought by Rams Club members. There is a possibility to get one at face value once the visiting teams return their unused allotment tickets, but otherwise fans look towards the secondary market. The parking ranges from $10 to $13 unless using the UNC shuttles, and the concessions inside the Dean E. Smith Center are the typical pricing for sport venues. But a trip to the Dean Dome to watch one of the elite college basketball programs in the country is above average in terms of return on investment, and the Carolina Museum is a must for any college basketball fan.

Extras 5

The Raleigh-Durham area is rich in college basketball history, as there are three college basketball programs which have provided numerous national championships to the area. Chapel Hill is Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred, and the beautiful North Carolina college town is a great tourist experience. The UNC campus is rich in American history, being the first state-supported university in America to open its doors to a graduating class in the 18th century.

Every college basketball fan should visit the Carolina Basketball Museum in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels storied program is all kept on full display inside the museum – there are over 500 authentic artifacts, hundreds of photographs, and numerous videos of various players, coaches, championships, and historic moments, and admission is free to the public. For fans interested in learning more about the museum, click here.

Final Thoughts

A visit to Chapel Hill, the UNC campus, and the Carolina Museum is a step back into history. The Dean E. Smith Center is home to one of the most prolific college basketball programs in the country.

The Dean Dome may disappoint fans with high expectations because of the North Carolina basketball program’s stature. However, I suggest that any college basketball fan make a trip to Chapel Hill and the Dean E. Smith Center. Overall, the Dean Dome provides a decent place to watch a basketball game with future NBA talent on the court.

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