The moments before Saturday’s Clemson-Georgia game were as electric as any Charlotte’s experienced in years.
Tens of thousands of fans painted in red and orange poured through once-silent streets, chanting in unison and chugging cans of White Claw and Bud Light. Traffic slowed to a standstill, to the point where some people just got out and started walking.
They filled Bank of America Stadium to its rim, and the city skyline sparkled just beyond that, as the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s Black Daggers parachute team floated down to deliver the game ball.
Then, just before kickoff, the concrete and steel stadium started to shake.
In the middle of it all, Cadie Koppenhaver stood calmly on the sidelines, tall with a headset on, listening to her producer up in the press box. She’d been working for two years for this moment.
As the Charlotte Sports Foundation’s director of operations, Koppenhaver is in charge of countless game day details – the timing of when the sponsor ads light up inside the stadium, making sure each side has enough time for their school’s own fan tradition after the third quarter, telling everyone where they need to be and the exact minute they need to be there.
By the beginning of the fourth quarter, several hours after that opening crescendo, Georgia was leading 10-0.
Koppenhaver turned to her colleagues, CSF executive director Danny Morrison and associate executive director Will Pitts, and said, “Clemson needs to score. This cannot be a shutout.”
It’s a much better show, after all, if the game is interesting.
Why it matters: For a weekend, at least, Charlotte felt big again. The city lit up all five senses. It was a huge deal especially for hotels, restaurants and the rest of the hospitality — all hammered over the last 18 months by the pandemic.
Most of the football festivities were the product of work from the CSF, the nonprofit organization that brings events like this to Charlotte as a way to showcase our city.
- Think of CSF and its eight full-time employees as a team of highly specialized wedding planners putting on the most elaborate reception you’ve ever seen. They’re the behind-the-scenes wizards of this explosion of enthusiasm, the caretakers of details you never knew needed to be taken care of.
- Conversations with them followed a common theme: They saw Labor Day weekend as an audition of sorts for Charlotte. An opportunity for the city to show off on a global stage, to showcase the kind of over-the-top party we’re capable of hosting one day, maybe a Final Four or a Super Bowl.
Yes, but: Throughout the weekend, everyone knew what lurked. It was hiding but present, like the cockroach of our times — the Delta variant.
Mecklenburg County’s health director Gibbie Harris had warned about it a few days earlier.
Harris implored people to “take responsibility” and wear masks. “There’s no way that crowd is COVID-free,” she said ominously on Friday.
By the numbers: Last week, Mecklenburg County was reporting an average of 536 laboratory confirmed COVID-19 cases per day. A slight decrease from previous weeks, but still way higher than earlier in the summer. Around the region, 451 COVID patients were hospitalized, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated.
Still, attendance was, as expected, high at both college football games:
- ECU/App: 36,752
- Clemson/Georgia: 74,187
The CSF team watched the COVID numbers throughout August, hoping they could carry on.
Morrison, in particular, sees sporting events less as competitions and more as engines for the people who work them — from the grounds crews to the medical teams to the waitstaffs at the restaurants.
“You can’t ignore it,” Morrison said of the COVID-19 concerns. “But we’re following all the guidelines.”
Morrison looked out over the empty stadium at about 4pm Thursday, before the first fan arrived. Suddenly the stadium’s sound system came on with a fitting first song of the weekend, Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”
“This can’t come at a better time,” he said. “To kick off the football season with a mega weekend where the whole country is watching Charlotte. That makes you feel good that you’ve helped those people who’ve been really hurt.”
Morrison was talking about all the businesses that lost revenue during the pandemic. But his organization had been hurting, too.
Last year’s opening-weekend classic between Notre Dame and Wake Forest was relocated, rescheduled and ultimately canceled. And then the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in December was capped at 5,200 fans.
Hardly what Morrison had envisioned when he returned to Charlotte to take over the CSF in 2019.
Morrison, many of you may know, was the Carolina Panthers president from September 2009 to February 2017. He then “moved to the beach,” he likes to say, moving to Sullivan’s Island near Charleston while teaching sports management courses at the University of South Carolina.
- (Of note: Several of Morrison’s students helped work the Mayo Classic.)
The CSF job lured him back to Charlotte.
So after the disappointing 2020, and after vaccinations became widely available this spring, Morrison and CSF started making announcements of big things to come:
- N.C. A&T and N.C. Central, two of the state’s largest HBCUs, would participate in the 2022 Duke’s Classic.
- They signed a three-year deal with Jordan Brand to launch the Jumpman Invitational, a big-time holiday college basketball tournament.
And they went into overdrive in planning for this weekend’s classic, billing it as a weekend that Charlotte would return.
Of course, about a month before kickoff, COVID-19 cases shot up.
It wasn’t until Thursday morning broke with cooler weather that anybody around the classic — or anyone around Charlotte — could say for certain that this thing was going to happen.
We spent about 90 minutes with Morrison as he walked around that afternoon, carrying a 32-ounce cup with Duke’s Mayonnaise logo on it.
Walking around the stadium with him was like taking part in a reunion tour.
- “Been waiting on you to get here!” said John Ogas, who’s worked on the Panthers football operations equipment staff for nearly 20 years.
- Said Jerry Dulu, who works in guest services: “When he was with the Panthers, he came through with this big Bojangles cup every game. He made us all feel like we mattered.”
- “Because you do,” Morrison said.
After Morrison thanked everyone from police officers outside the stadium to grounds crew members, game time was getting close. He made his way to the field to meet with dignitaries from Duke’s and folks like Johnny Harris, CEO of Lincoln Harris.
The next few hours were a tasty hors d’oeuvre for the weekend.
- App State won the game and statewide bragging rights, 33-19.
- Morrison’s team swirled around him, making sure the LED ribbon board ran the correct graphics, the 500-pound Dr Pepper cans were on the field at halftime, and that nobody dropped the national championship trophy, among other minor details.
Then, in this big event where everyone had a part to play and every part had a purpose, after the final whistle a man from the grounds crew walked onto the field with a can of paint remover spray.
Several others fired up brushing machines. Before the Appalachian State team was even off the field, the letters from their logo were being removed to make way for Georgia and Clemson.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Morrison gave his CSF team fist bumps and hand shakes.
“Now we’ve got to elevate it for Saturday,” he said.
Saturday broke warm but not hot, sunny but not overwhelming. An ideal late summer football morning, in other words.
Some fans showed up at 6am or earlier to secure a prime spot for ESPN’s College GameDay, which had picked Charlotte for its popular weekly pregame show ahead of arguably the biggest college football game Charlotte’s ever hosted.
Charlotte’s not a college sports town — not compared to its North Carolina siblings in the Triangle, at least. But for these 72 hours, we sure felt like one.
GameDay lived up to its hype — NASCAR’s Chase Elliott, singer Kane Brown, Chef Alyssa Wilen, Panthers coach Matt Rhule and Charlotte 49ers coach Will Healy were just a few of the big names who showed up.
Just hours earlier, Healy and his Charlotte football team had defeated Duke at home on a Friday night. It marked the first win over a Power 5 opponent in program history.
- Fans stormed the field and we all enjoyed this tremendous video of Healy getting a big hug from his son.
All around Healy and others on the GameDay stage, people held up homemade signs, huge jars of mayonnaise, kids, cowboy boots and just about anything else that’d get them noticed on national TV.
All of this — the familiar slap of corn hole bags, the smell of burgers and hotdogs, the thumping of hip hop over huge speakers as sparkly cheerleaders hoisted each other up and spun through the air, the smack-talking chants — was part of the unmistakable album of fall that we’ve missed a lot.
Football is a rite of the season in the South. And this weekend it was sponsored by, of all things, the preferred mayonnaise of every Southern grandma from Charlotte to Clemson to Athens, Georgia.
“We made the decision 18 months ago: ‘How do you make mayonnaise cool again?'” said Joe Tuza, whose official title is president of the condiment division for Sauer Brands, but who also goes by “Captain Condiment.” “Kraft Heinz, Hellmann’s — we’re never going to outspend them. We’ve got to outsmart them.”
- “Duke’s used to be more conservative and buttoned up,” says Brooke Faw, a VP of client experiences at Bespoke, the local marketing agency overseeing the promotion of the mayonnaise brand. “We got them to loosen up a little bit,” she adds with a smile.
Loosen up, they sure did. The most vivid images and videos from the weekend were the ones that made audiences’ stomachs churn — fans gulping down Duke’s mayonnaise by the handful on the jumbotron.
One young man at GameDay dumped a massive jar of Duke’s all over his face and body, smearing it through his hair and over his bare chest. The folks at CSF awarded him two suite tickets to the game for his efforts.
“They’ve loved it,” CSF’s director of communications Miller Yoho said of the exposure for Duke’s. This marks the first sports marketing deal for Duke’s, a brand not previously well known before as high-energy and goofy.
As the end of the fourth quarter neared, Will Pitts, CSF’s associate executive director, scanned the stadium.
“Ya know, I don’t think there’s been a single fan who’s left this stadium tonight,” Pitts observed.
To be sure, you could hardly see an empty seat. And at home the numbers were encouraging too.
- Despite the lack of offense from either team, Georgia’s 10-3 defeat of Clemson drew plenty of eyeballs. According to ESPN, it was the second most-viewed Kickoff Saturday game on any network in 15 years.
Pitts, who’s lived in Charlotte since he was a kid, marveled at how much has changed since the city’s last biggest college sports weekend — the Final Four in 1994.
Back then city leaders and boosters set up a makeshift restaurant and small-business row to serve the people and the games. This time around, it felt a little more like the people and the games had been set up to serve the small businesses.
Charlotte spends so much time chasing its true identity that the pursuit itself actually might just be the identity.
Pitts scanned the skyline in those final minutes, remarking on names like Honeywell and Ally that’ve established a presence here in recent years. Uptown’s grown from a sleepy bankers’ hub into an entertainment district. Thousands more hotel rooms have been built since the 1990s. We have a growing number of renowned restaurants and a hugely popular airport.
And CSF wants to make sure other big events take note, because hey, we can host them, too.
“This is huge for Charlotte,” Pitts said, in what was as much a prediction for the future as an echo from the past.