GLENDALE, Ariz. — The NCAA likes to say that it’s all about helping student-athletes. But when it comes to the students who aren’t athletes at the Final Four, the help is limited.
About the only good part of the deal for UNC students who spent hundreds of dollars to travel to and stay in Arizona is that a ticket only cost them $40, which is the same as the price for parking outside of the stadium. Because the Tar Heels advanced, that $40 also got them into Monday’s championship game.
The rest of the story for students isn’t pretty.
They are put behind one of the baselines in rows of seats that are all on the same level: About 3 1/2 feet below the floor level of the court. There is no slope and no chance that students a few rows back can see the game very well.
In Houston last year, Katie Henning, a senior nutrition and chemistry major from Lake Charles, La., experienced what it was like to be a few rows back. It was frustrating. She got the excitement of being there and cheering for the Tar Heels, but a very poor view of the action.
“I was 12 rows back for the semifinals,” said Henning, left, who couldn’t stay for the championship game in Houston. “I could not see the game at all. I probably watched most of the game on the big screen.”
Any student who is the third row or farther back is absolutely going to be unable to see the court at all, although they can see the players running around. It’s a bit like the seats behind the baselines in the old Reynolds Coliseum configuration. There was a slight slope, but if you were very many rows back, you could see the players but not the court.
Henning was determined to get a front row seat, which she was able to secure for the semifinals at University of Phoenix Stadium, and expected to get the same spot for Monday’s game. It was all because of the frustrating experience in Houston.
“I couldn’t even see it in person, that’s why we tried to get in the front. I couldn’t see the players at all,” Henning said.
Her experience for the Oregon game was quite contrasting.
“I was in the front row for the semifinals and it was amazing,” she said. “Some of my family and friends at home said they saw me on TV. It was a great way to actually see the game. I feel like if I was farther back, I wouldn’t be able to see the players.”
Like most students, she wishes that there “was a way to make the seats elevated in some way for the students to see.”
Henning said that getting a good seat at the Final Four is actually easier than it was for the Duke game.
“For the Duke game, I came in line at 6 a.m. and there were 50 people in front of me, and I got here at 9:30 and we were the first ones there,” said Henning, who got up at 7 a.m. and took an Uber to the stadium after eating breakfast at her hotel even though the game didn’t start until 6:18 p.m. “Nobody showed up for two more hours. I think it’s because there are so many less students, which is why it’s not as competitive. It’s really not as bad, which was shocking to me.”
There were around 50 Gonzaga students there when she arrived, but it was another hour or so before other Carolina students joined her group. They sat on the sidewalk outside the gate until they were allowed in at 2 p.m.
“There was a foot of shade, so we sat in the shade and waited it out,” she said.
There was no relief once they were allowed through the gate at 2 p.m. Next, they were put in a holding area surrounded by barricades outside the stadium in the hot sun with the temperature at 81 degrees and little shade. There was one holding area for UNC students and another one about 50 feet away from Gonzaga students.
It wasn’t until 4 p.m. that the students were allowed to enter the stadium and take their seats. Although there are assigned seats, Henning says that nobody really followed them and that it was “a free for all” with students sprinting to the available seats for the semifinals.
That all changed for a while Monday when the security officials, under the direction of the NCAA, told students that if they didn’t sit in their assigned seats, they’d be ejected. For all of the time Henning spent to make sure she got on the first row, it looked like she would have to sit on the fifth row. About an hour later, it worked so that she got the coveted front-row seat.
The experience is a pricey one for the UNC students.
“If there was some way NCAA would help students afford to get themselves there [that would help],” she said. “I know the ticket prices are great. But if we could pay a fee to ride a bus, that would be great.”
All of that was worth it for her because she snagged that front-row seat again for, she hopes, some Carolina basketball history.