Kathy Sapp was in no mood to talk as thousands of disappointed Carolina fans streamed past her Dean Dome clothing concession. They paid no notice to the jerseys, T-shirts and itty-bitty cheerleader outfits for Tar Heel tots.
"Team struggles, we struggle," she said as she helped employees pack up unsold merchandise.
It was Wednesday and the Heels had just fallen to Duke, setting up a battle against N.C. State at 4 p.m. today to avoid last place in the ACC.
A season removed from the euphoria of their second national championship in five years, there is no thrill on the hill for the Heels' fans or the businesses that bank on their success. It's an unfamiliar - and uncomfortable - situation for the Carolina faithful.
"We haven't been getting as much foot traffic as usual," said Deanne Davis, a UNC senior from Greensboro who has worked at Carolina Pride on Franklin Street for four years. "I don't know if it's the team or the economy, but it's been extremely slow, considering it was Duke." Wednesday's sales were about half what they normally are when Carolina plays Duke, she said. "I'd like to think Tar Heels fans are better than that," to abandon the team when it's down.
They are, indeed, said John Montgomery, executive director of the Rams Club, the UNC booster group.
"Our fans like winning as much as anybody, but they love the Heels" win or lose, he said, adding that the team's 13-11 record has taken no toll on the Rams' revenue. A slight drop in membership last year was more about the economy than a young team's struggles, he said.
Heels worth $26 million
The Carolina men's basketball team was the nation's biggest college sports' income machine last year, according to Forbes magazine, which pegged the team's value at $26 million. UNC merchandise has outsold that of its 11 ACC foes for the past 13 years, Forbes reported
For the faithful, it's about something greater and more important than greenbacks. It's about trust. Trust that the dark days won't linger.
"You know we'll be back," longtime fan Hanna Tacker of Asheville said after the defeat by Duke. After all, her devotion survived the infamous 8-20 season posted by Matt Doherty's Heels in 2001-02.
"I'm not a fair weather fan."
Oh, she added, "Tell Roy we still love him!"
Ali Mehrizi of Charlotte may still love Coach Williams, too, but he wasn't particularly happy with him after Wednesday's game.
"I can't remember the last time a Roy Williams' team scored 50 points in a game," Mehrizi said.
He won't turn his back on his team, though. Not ever. "Once you're a Carolina fan, you're always a Carolina fan. You don't stop just because they're losing."
Genny Wrenn of the Shrunken Head, which sells all things Carolina, says it's always been this way.
"We've been here for 40 years, and we've seen a few bad teams, but Carolina fans have always been loyal," she said. "Everything could always be better. If the team was winning, things would be a heckuva lot better."
At Top of the Hill restaurant and bar, manager Griffin Kennedy and bartender Patrick O'Neill attributed the town's blues to a convergence of factors.
"It's been a perfect storm of the economy, the weather and the team struggling," O'Neill said. "Whatever it is, the whole town's feeling down. We're doing OK, but talking to bartenders at other bars around town - they're noticing a drop-off."
When they do come out, O'Neill said, "people are still having a good time, spending a lot of money. They're still drinking, but they're drinking for a different reason."