Shoveling 6-inch-deep snow from his driveway Wednesday in Henderson, Ky., Curt Hamilton knew he had a decision to make.
He could follow his wife’s advice to stay home or drive eight hours in winter weather to see his alma mater Duke play in Thursday’s Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium.
Hamilton says the choice was easy.
“The better part of me – my wife – says maybe we shouldn’t go, but we will not be denied,” said Hamilton, a 1991 graduate and die-hard fan.
Hotels and bars and restaurants are hoping thousands of other college football fans will brave inclement weather and help lift sales during what restaurant and bar operators say is typically a dead week in uptown Charlotte.
A city of transplants and bankers, uptown Charlotte sees foot traffic and other activity slow to a crawl during the holidays.
That means bars and restaurants are counting on a strong turnout for the 6:30 p.m. game between Duke and Cincinnati.
Eric Flanigan, operating partner for the Whisky River nightclub in the EpiCentre, said alumni organizers anticipate about 10,000 Cincinnati fans coming to town. Whisky River expected to serve as a gathering spot for as many as 2,500 Bearcat fans on Wednesday and another 1,200 Thursday.
Managers tracked the college football season and were pleased when the Belk Bowl announced at least one of the schools participating was at least a six-hour drive away, Flanigan said.
Fans for N.C. State and UNC Chapel Hill, who played in past Charlotte bowl games, typically drive into town the day of the game, tailgate and leave town the same day, Flanigan said. “When they are from further away, they come for multiple days.”
The nightclub has seen big crowds when the Belk Bowl involved schools such as West Virginia, Florida State and Louisville, whose fans are willing to travel to see them play, Flanigan said.
But a severe winter storm that dumped heavy snow in parts of the Midwest and brought pounding rains to the Carolinas may discourage travel. Forecasters are predicting dry weather in Charlotte today and a high reaching 50 degrees.
“A lot of it depends on the weather,” said Matt Shope, general manager at the Fox and Hound Bar and Grill uptown. “Are folks going to get out and enjoy Charlotte or are they going to go from their hotels to the stadium?”
Shope said he heard hotel bookings were strong and decided to increase staffing for game day.
Will Webb, executive director of the Belk Bowl, said he expects a crowd of at least 40,000 Thursday night, perhaps as many as 45,000.
“If we get mid-40s, we’ll be all right,” Webb said.
The lowest attendance for the Belk Bowl came two years ago when Clemson lost to South Florida 31-26. The game drew just 41,122. Three times, the game has been a complete sellout, drawing more than 73,000 fans. It has drawn at least 50,000 fans every year except 2010.
North Carolina has played in the game three times, N.C. State has played twice and Wake Forest has played in the bowl once.
This is Duke’s first bowl appearance in 18 years and Webb said the school sold more than 10,000 tickets through its ticket office. Webb said several thousand more tickets were sold to Duke fans through other outlets including through the bowl’s Ticketmaster link.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said so many former Blue Devil football players were coming to the game that a get-together was planned for Wednesday evening.
“The guys are coming to the game from all over,” Cutcliffe said. “There has been unbelievable interest. They’re just as excited as if they were playing in the game.”
Hamilton, the fan from Kentucky, said he and three of his children were planning to leave home at 3 a.m. Thursday on the 550-mile trip to Charlotte. They plan to attend the game and spend the night in town.
He said he has heard from other alumni who have similar plans.
Hamilton, an attorney, has an undergraduate degree from Duke and a law degree from Cincinnati. But he said his football allegiance is to Duke.
He recalled his days as a student when Duke boasted an elite basketball program and a winning football team.
“We are really looking forward to the game,” Hamilton said. “We couldn’t miss it.”