PEMBROKE — The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s football program and its growing fanbase is ready for prime-time TV.
For the first time in history Thursday night, the Braves will be featured on national television, fulfilling a longtime goal that seventh-year coach Pete Shinnick had for the Division II independent.
UNCP entertains fifth-ranked Winston-Salem State, last season’s national runner-up, inside Grace P. Johnson Stadium, a season-opening matchup that’s generated buzz at the university, across Pembroke and the surrounding area.
All the seats are expected to be filled, but standing-room-only tickets will allow 4,000 people — more than Pembroke’s population — to add to the atmosphere.
“Every time I walk on campus, that’s all I hear,” UNCP senior linebacker Fred Williams said. “‘Sept. 5th Fred, Sept. 5th. We can’t wait to see you play. It’s going to be on TV.’”
The game against the Rams, a national power with a prolific offense under coach Connell Maynor, kicks off at 8 p.m. Thursday. It is the first of six D-II games that will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network, a channel available through specific packages on Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, DISH, and other television providers throughout the country.
The Braves were a Hail Mary completion away from upsetting Winston-Salem State last season, finishing the 2012 campaign 6-4. Since returning to the gridiron after a 56-year hiatus in 2007, UNCP has positioned itself as one of D-II’s most competitive independents.
“When we started it, we wanted to be known as one of the better teams in the region,” Shinnick said. “What comes with that type of recognition is typically playoffs and national rankings, and if you go deep in the playoffs you get on television.”
UNCP announced its national television plans for the home opener in May.
“I think as Division II looks and says ‘What’s the best game we can put on television that night?’ I’m sure they had a few options and we were the best choice,” Shinnick said. “That’s real exciting for us.”
The anticipation has spread throughout the community.
“We’ve been talking all summer about this game,” said Town Manager Oryan Lowry, who earned an undergraduate degree from UNCP in 1999 and a master’s in 2007.
For those not attending the game, there will be plenty of venues around town for people to huddle, grab a beverage and cheer for the Braves.
“Just the fact that it’s a televised game creates a hype around it that’s going to drive traffic through downtown,” said Kim Pevia, the president of the Pembroke Area Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to the traditional pregame experience, which includes plenty of tailgating, there will be other attractions specifically enhanced for the live audience.
Pembroke’s Peace in the Park concert series will have its first weekly show starting at 5 p.m. near the stadium. Funk musician Sol Roots and his band will be featured in a free show going throughout the night.
Before the kickoff, the university will have the game ball delivered by skydivers and the university will honor 1969 NFL MVP Roman Gabriel, a Wilmington native who starred at N.C. State and gained national fame as a member of the Los Angeles Rams.
“Pete’s done a great job reaching out to the high schools in this area and being kind of the football team for the southeastern part of the state, and we saw a good fit there with having a chance to bring Roman to the game and recognize him,” UNCP Athletic Director Dick Christy said.
CBS will have temporary light fixtures put up to help with the TV presentation, there will be a roving sideline reporter to do interviews and media timeouts will take place throughout the game to accommodate advertisers.
One change will be the location of the UNCP students.
For the first time since football’s rebirth, there will be a designated student section in the main grandstand for those who participate in a free affinity group called #BraveNation. They’ll be alongside season-ticket holders.
“Students drive the rest of atmosphere, so anytime you can get students near season-ticket holders you can get students involved in the action and it permeates from there,” Christy said.
The scale of the game isn’t lost on UNCP marching band member Tierra Thompson, a freshman who came to Pembroke this fall from Greensboro. She may not be a football enthusiast, but being seen under the lights by viewers will be a unique experience.
“That’s pretty cool to be on TV,” she said.
Christy says Thursday is a great chance for the school to market all aspects of itself — not just the football team.
“Anytime you’re on TV like that it’s like a two-and-a-half hour commercial for your institution,” Christy said. “They’re seeing our facility, there’s interviews, there’s PA spots about our institution as a whole. You can’t buy that type of advertising.”
Pembroke Councilman Ryan Sampson played football and baseball while earning his degree at Greenville College in Greenville, Ill. He never had the chance to play on television but is excited for the the local exposure.
“It’s going to big plus just to show off the university,” he said. “Pembroke’s growing now and this is only going to benefit it.”