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Can 49ers turn Charlotte on to college ball? 

UNC Charlotte's new football team could transform the Queen City

It was the morning before UNC Charlotte's first spring football game and I needed a grill. I paid thousands of dollars in student fees over the last three years to help fund this team and refused to tailgate with my roommate's George Foreman. So, I headed to the Home Depot near campus.

I was searching for a grill small enough to fit in my car but sturdy enough that my friends, just a few days older than the legal drinking age, couldn't knock it over in a drunken stumble. We'd never tailgated because my school didn't have a football team before this day in April, but I assumed these were the qualities you look for in something college kids use to scorch meat.

After finding a grill and dragging it to the check-out line, I noticed my orange-vested cashier smiling.

"Looks like you're going tailgating," he said, pointing to a green pennant lazily waving with each opening of the store's automatic doors. "Go Niners."

I'd heard school pride coming from alumni and members of our student fan club, Niner Nation Gold, but this was different. It came from someone with seemingly no affiliation to UNC Charlotte. The exchange was a new experience for me even after living on campus for three years.

This made me wonder: Could 49er football change things?

Will University City residents see UNC Charlotte as something other than a community of students to mug? Can University City overcome being trapped by four highways and blossom into a semblance of a college community, anchored by a football team that actually keeps students on campus during the weekends? What about the rest of Charlotte? Will the city's other neighborhoods, filled with transplants from all over the country, stake their claim in the hometown college football team?

UNC Charlotte alumni I spoke with said these are all possibilities, but warned I'm probably looking too much into the dinky flag.

"It's going to take time. My neighbors never talk about the team yet," said Andrea Howard, a Charlotte resident who graduated from UNC Charlotte in 1998 after playing shortstop for the university's softball team.

Howard lives in SouthPark, about 15 miles away from UNC Charlotte's main campus. She's donated to UNC Charlotte's athletics program since graduating and plans on attending as many football games as her busy schedule with two kids and a high-profile real estate job will allow. Despite her stake in the athletics program, she admits the city, fast approaching 1 million residents, may be too large to become the next Tuscaloosa, Ann Arbor or South Bend.

But the city's size and attributes also present an opportunity.

Charlotte has jobs and amenities, which encourage UNC Charlotte alumni to stick around, unlike the college football towns it dwarfs. Sure, the local approximately 30,000 UNC Charlotte alumni only make up a small sample of Charlotte's growing population, but when you consider the team's football stadium is smaller than some high school stadiums in Texas — McColl-Richardson Field only holds about 15,000 fans — it becomes clear why alumni have real potential to jumpstart the new team. If all of the city's UNC Charlotte grads came to the season opener in August, they could fill the stadium twice.

When asked if the rest of the city will care about the new football team, the UNC Charlotte athletics program defaults to mentioning this large alumni base. And as long as their measure of football engagement remains to be the number of alumni purchasing season tickets — and not the number of green pennants hanging in shops around town — athletics will tell you they're doing OK.

They repeatedly tout two numbers in particular: 70 percent of the 1,200 Charlotte 49er Football Seat Licenses sold to date (FSL) are owned by alumni and 65 percent of FSL holders weren't previously donors to the athletic program. FSLs allow fans to purchase season tickets in desirable seats.

Numbers reported by the university's ticketing office also show half of the 1,200 FSL holders live in Charlotte and another 32 percent are from neighboring communities including Concord, Huntersville, Matthews and Harrisburg. There are even two FSL holders in Hong Kong and South Korea. Athletics said these pockets of fans scattered across the region — and Asia — reflect the new team's popularity.

But these 1,200 FSL holders are scattered across a city of transplants with allegiances to football teams back home.

"We can easily get 200 people in a bar," said Elizabeth Perry, president of the Charlotte chapter of the University of Alabama Alumni & Friends.

But Perry, an Alabama grad born and raised in Tuscaloosa, said Charlotte football is closer to having a solid fan base than 49er fans think.

"Charlotte shouldn't worry about the size of the city, it's the excitement of the fans that counts," she said.

No amount of speculation can predict whether 49er football will be a hit in the rest of Charlotte. But with Perry's attitude, there will be droopy green pennants hanging all over the city in no time.

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