NASCAR, ex-Cats and worrisome history: UK fans’ guide to the 2019 Belk Bowl – Lexington Herald Leader

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UK in the 2019 Belk Bowl

The University of Kentucky will play Virginia Tech in the 2019 Belk Bowl on Dec. 31. Read more about the Wildcats’ opponent and destination.

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Kentucky’s trip to the Belk Bowl will be its first in school history. It will also be the first time the Wildcats have played a football game in Charlotte, the most populated city in North Carolina.

You might have some questions about this unfamiliar destination. I’ll try to answer ’em.

What’s the Belk Bowl and how important is it?

It is one of the “Pool of Six” bowls with whom the Southeastern Conference has contracted to send a team to each season, along with the Gator Bowl, Liberty Bowl, Music City Bowl, Outback Bowl and Texas Bowl. The Belk Bowl is played in Bank of American Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers.

From a raw dollars perspective, among the “Pool of Six” bowls, the Belk Bowl in 2018 ranked fourth (ahead of the Liberty Bowl and Gator Bowl) with a total payout of $4,505,556 split evenly between winner Virginia and loser South Carolina. That number is somewhat irrelevant, though, as far UK is concerned: it will retain a portion of its payout to cover travel and other bowl-related expenses but the majority will be put into a pool that will be distributed evenly to all 14 SEC teams at a later date (that applies to every postseason game in which the SEC has a participant, including the College Football Playoff).

It, of course, doesn’t have the prestige of the Sugar Bowl or the Citrus Bowl, but outside of the College Football Playoff — which determines, y’know, a national champion — the only “importance” of any bowl in the sport boils down to one or several of the following: bragging rights, ending the season on a high note, having 15 extra practices before a break sets in, possibly achieving a recruiting edge and having one final opportunity to showcase your seniors and juniors who might leave early for the NFL Draft (*coughLynnBowdencough*).

More than anything, for Kentucky, it’s another chance to keep chipping away at the notion, nationally, that the only sport it plays is basketball. This game will probably attract more eyeballs than any UK regular-season game, so an opportunity to give ’em something special to see is never a bad thing.

What is a Belk?

Most bowls have a title sponsor — the Gator Bowl’s full name is technically the “TaxSlayer Gator Bowl,” for example — but the Belk Bowl, like the Outback Bowl, is named outright after its title sponsor.

Belk is a department store chain that is headquartered in Charlotte. It operates about 300 stores nationally, including seven in Kentucky (it has one store each in Ashland, Bowling Green, Corbin, Elizabethtown, Middlesboro, Richmond and Somerset). It was founded by William Henry Belk, who later welcomed his brother John as a partner, in 1888.

The first store opened in Monroe, N.C., as “New York Racket” before changing its name to “Belk Brothers.” The Belk family owned the company until 2015, when it was sold for $3 billion to Sycamore Partners, a private equity firm.

This is the last year Belk will sponsor the bowl; the Charlotte Observer reported last month that Belk will end its sponsorship following the 2019 game.

How did the Belk Bowl come to be?

Raycom Sports, a TV rights-holder to SEC basketball and football games until 2008 and for Atlantic Coast Conference basketball games until earlier this year, began exploring how to bring more college events to Charlotte when the NFL opened up shop there in the late 1990s. The NCAA certified the bowl as the “Queen City Bowl” in 2002 but the first game would eventually played under the name “Continental Tire Bowl.” Virginia defeated West Virginia, 48-22, in the inaugural game in front of 73,535 fans, still the record to this day.

Continental Tire sponsored the bowl through 2004 before Meineke Car Care did so from 2005-2010.

Why has Kentucky never played in Charlotte?

The Queen City is one of the south’s biggest, yet the Cats have somehow avoided it for more than 100 years.

The SEC did not become affiliated with the Belk Bowl until 2014, so it wasn’t an option when UK became bowl eligible from 2006-2010. UK did not become bowl-eligible under Stoops until 2016, and in the last three seasons played in the Gator Bowl (a first-time appearance), the Music City Bowl (a record fifth appearance) and the Citrus Bowl.

Charlotte is the only FBS team located in Charlotte, and it and Kentucky have met only one time (2015 at Kroger Field). The 49ers’ program didn’t exist until 2013.

The chances of UK making a road trip to play a Conference USA team are slim, so barring a return trip to the Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Belk Bowl in the coming years, it could be a while before UK plays there again. It’ll be tougher for this bowl to bring the Cats, soon, too: beginning in 2020 and through 2025, it will alternate its non-ACC affiliation with the Big Ten Conference and SEC.

Has UK ever played in North Carolina?

Yes! The results haven’t been great, though: UK is 0-7 all-time in The Tar Heel State.

Kentucky has played at North Carolina in Chapel Hill four times: 1934, 1970, 1972 and 1990. All four of those games were losses. Duke is also undefeated against the Wildcats in Durham, winning the two games played there in 1930 and 1932.

North Carolina A&M, today known as North Carolina State, won a 15-6 decision in Raleigh in 1909.

What can I do while I’m in Charlotte?

The Belk Bowl website features a handy guide to Charlotte, including restaurants, breweries and other attractions to keep one busy before and after the football game. That’s a good place to start.

NASCAR fans probably know that Charlotte is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which features several exhibits dedicated to the sport’s history and important racers. Charlotte Motor Speedyway in nearby Concord is one of a few speedways nationally that offer racing experiences for thrill-seeking types (Can’t make it? Kentucky Speedway in Sparta does as well).

Evangelist Billy Graham was born in Charlotte, and the city’s Billy Graham Library is one of several museums rooted in the city. There are a multiple museums dedicated to art and history, including the Carolinas Aviation Museum, in which visitors can take part in flight simulations.

If you go a couple days early you could get a preview of the stadium: the Carolina Panthers host the New Orleans Saints in the regular-season finale for both teams on Dec. 29; it’s scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff.

Fans could put together a UK-themed football-basketball doubleheader depending on how quickly the football game finishes. The NBA’s Charlotte Hornets host the Boston Celtics for a 3 p.m. tipoff at the Spectrum Center, which is located 1.6 miles from Bank of America Stadium. Former UK basketball stars Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Malik Monk and PJ Washington are on the Hornets’ roster. Washington, a rookie, is a starter and averaging 11.7 points per game for the Hornets. Malik Monk is averaging 9.6 points off the bench while Kidd-Gilchrist has appeared in only two games this season.

Want to make it a tripleheader? The Carolina Hurricanes, Charlotte’s NHL team, host the Montreal Canadiens at 7 p.m. Dec. 31.