College: Fan Shortage Clouds Charlotte

Organizers search for answers to low turnout

As Chad Kupreanik, the tournament director for the Men's College Cup, scanned the expanse of mostly empty seats just before kickoff of the Dec. 12 final, he maintained that his goal was to sell out the 33,000 seats in the lower bowl at Ericsson Stadium.

"Anywhere between 15 and 20 [thousand] would be pretty solid," Kupreanik said, yet he stopped short of calling the two crowds - 13,231 for the semifinals Dec. 10 and 15,439 for the final - failures. The final figure was up slightly from last year's 15,202 but as single-day attendances go, this year's crowds ranked 11th and 14th in tournament history.

Kupreanik, a member of the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission, headed the three-pronged organizing committee that included host institutions Davidson College and UNC Charlotte. The NCAA took the plunge into a big-time sports venue after seven years of substantial growth at Davidson College and the University of Richmond. Much of the weekend's discussion centered around whether that was a good idea.

For the most part, Charlotte received high marks as a host. Players and coaches raved about the stadium. Lodging and logistics were more than suitable. The media, which watched the last four championships cramped behind foggy windows in Richmond, were pampered with ample space, a superb view and quality video replays.

The field was an excellent size and a decent surface, although a bit worn and slippery on the flanks where heavy NFL feet had worn grass away. Ugly football lines showed because heavy rain on the morning of the semis had diluted the water-based paint used to conceal them. Since football lines are a problem yet to be solved by MLS, it wasn't hard to accept Kupreanik's contention that "the crew at Ericsson Stadium did everything possible to get this field ready for us."

Even if the low turnout was the only major negative about the venue, it was a major one. Selling tickets was essential to recouping the huge cost of renting the stadium. Kupreanik would not name that price, stating that some expenses - like the overtime hours of all the stadium employees who worked Friday's double marathon - could not be determined until afterward. One fee estimate floating around was $400,000.

The only two reasons Kupreanik guessed for the low turnout were that fans are not familiar with Ericsson Stadium as a soccer venue and that a regional team did not qualify. He then reminded himself that an event cannot be planned around which teams advance.

No youth discounts

Tickets were $50, $60 or $85 per seat for three games. Single-day tickets were not available until the day before the semifinals. The least-expensive ticket for just the championship game was $25. There were no youth discounts.

UNC Charlotte coach John Tart specifically named ticket prices among things that needed to be reexamined.

"We're all a little disappointed right now because so much work was put into this and it hasn't shown in the number of tickets sold," Tart said. "But I can tell you it wasn't because of a lack of effort."

Kupreanik remained optimistic about next year's College Cup, saying that fans would be more aware after this year's groundwork. But by then it will probably be too late for Charlotte, since the NCAA committees will discuss plans for the 2001 College Cup in February of 2000. That is a shame because with 20-25,000 fans in the lower bowl Ericsson Stadium probably would be a very enjoyable place to watch soccer.

"I would love to see a perfect soccer field and I would love to see 34,000 people here," Kupreanik said. "But for a beginning in Ericsson Stadium, I think this is a pretty good one."

bySoccer America associate editor Will Kuhns

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