(Photos by Steven Paul Whitsitt Photography)
This month our community witnessed thousands of fans from around the world gathering in Chapel Hill to watch Wrexham AFC play Chelsea FC.
Many of us don’t know much about the teams, or much about Wales for that matter. Few of us looked forward to the traffic and crowding that come with an event of this magnitude.
Instead, what we saw from our perch at the Visitors Center was community, love of travel; listening to the sounds of laughter and awe; and beheld with a sense of wonder the multi-national fans who became our guests. So many of them walked the streets of Chapel Hill proclaiming this the “nicest community they’ve ever been to,” and “I can’t believe the first-class football stadium you have, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And, yes, the economic impact is impressive. At this point, the statisticians predict close to $17 million.
And, yes, our hotels were full, restaurants and bars were buzzing, and shop-owners listened to the mellifluous cha-ching of their cash registers.
But there was a more substantial benefit than an economic windfall. The game united longtime friends from across the country and from across the globe, a kind of golden ticket to make a journey for the game and a hug — the best of all possible worlds.
The kids who visited with their families were as wide-eyed as we’d ever seen them. Their idols and legends were all around them; they were gleaning tips on how to improve their own game.
“My child was thrilled to visit Chapel Hill,” said DeDe Lillo, of Clayton, NC “This is where legends are made. But so far he’s been most excited at the ice cream downtown and temporary tattoos he’s found in the stores.” Ah, well. There is something for everybody here.
Sport isn’t just a game. It’s a tool to break down social and cultural barriers on and off the field. No matter the sport, it’s all the same, from Chapel Hill to China, players from all walks of life are tasked to work together in pursuit of a common goal.
“One of the things I love most about my involvement in football is the incredible opportunities I have been given to meet and connect with people through sport — in the many regions of Wales, America, the United Kingdom and now Chapel Hill,” says Wayne Jones, owner operator of The Turf Club in Wales. “Our love of football is what brings us together, and this passion that we share is what creates that sense of community.”
At the Visitors Center we saw this first-hand, smiles exchanged for restaurant suggestions.
All barriers seemed to fall away, regardless of language. This game felt like a bright, shining moment, and a source of wonder and joy. It encouraged excitement, fascination, and not a little pub-crawling. There was even a breeze.
The Visitors Bureau heard so many positive comments about the park-and-ride options our heads swelled to the size of a soccer ball. Equally enjoyable was hearing rave reviews for our restaurants and pubs, prompting the New York Times to include a pictorial on some of the pubs on Franklin Street.
So: can we bring more events like this to Kenan Stadium? Can we plan for more large-scale extravaganzas in our sports facilities and downtowns?
The jury is still out on that one. And it’s a complicated question with benefits and risks. But we have it on good advice that the question is being studied by local leaders.
For now, let’s tip a hat to the power of the alumni who fight to bring events like this to their alma mater. In this case, Ms. Molly Pendelton, a 2010 graduate from UNC who travels the world with Unified Events and was a force in bringing this American tour to Kenan Stadium.
And let’s give thanks for living in a place that is admired by returning guests and new fans alike. In the end, what mattered most to these travelers was the kindness of locals and on that we delivered, in every way. We’re not surprised, of course. That’s just who we are.
*Note: What is called football by most of the rest of the world, including UK English speakers, is known as soccer or European football in the USA and Canada.