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Putting fans in stands constant struggle here

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Quiet.

That's what is most noticeable at games played by Division I men's basketball teams around the Beltway. It's the result of a lack of consistent success and the stiff competition for fans' attention from professional teams - not to mention a major college basketball program not too far removed from a national title.

It works out to sparse crowds.

"I'd like to see this place full," said Parkville resident Joe O'Malley, who came to Reitz Arena earlier in the season to watch Loyola play Princeton. "The last time I was here, it was 250 people."

O'Malley, 47, is one of those individuals who describe themselves as general college hoops fans. More like him would be welcome at UMBC, Morgan State, Coppin State, Towson and Loyola.

Consistent growth in attendance has come only to UMBC, which attracted an average of 971 fans during the 1999-2000 season and then inched up to the point where its figures have nearly doubled during this season, aided by giveaways to church groups and youth leagues.

Loyola has averaged 1,171 this season, but that followed four straight seasons of declines, including a 2002-03 campaign in which an average of 423 watched the Greyhounds at home.

Morgan State and Towson - the schools with the largest constituencies - follow UMBC as leaders in average attendance among the five schools. But they rank toward the bottom when judged by how close they come to filling Hill Field House or Towson Center, though the Bears attracted 3,872 for their game against Hampton on Monday.

"We have a lot to work to do, which isn't a surprise to anyone," said Towson's marketing director, Barry Barnum, who came to the school last fall. "But we're not alone. ... I'm not aware of anyone who is satisfied - just some who are more satisfied than others."

Many fans' image of college basketball is 15,000 fans screaming at a game between highly ranked teams, with the stakes high and the personalities and histories of both squads well known - not only to those in attendance, but to many of those watching on television across the country.

In the Baltimore area, such galvanizing circumstances are rare. Coppin came close in the 1990s, with its success leading to packed houses - though Coppin Center's capacity is a cozy 1,720.

Wins have been hard to come by. In the previous four seasons, local teams won only 30.9 percent of their games, with a dozen 20-loss seasons among the five Baltimore-area programs.

The losses do little to get fans excited.

"You have to be competitive," said Loyola athletic director Joe Boylan, who presides over a program that just ended a 31-game losing streak. "People have to feel that they can come to an exciting game and they have to feel like they have a chance."

Attractions help

It also helps to have an attraction like Tamir Goodman, who drew the Orthodox Jewish community to games at Towson. Or an opposing team like Princeton, which drew fans to games at Loyola and UMBC this season.

Most recently, there was the dubious attraction of the Loyola losing streak that brought fans to Reitz Arena. The streak nearly put the Greyhounds in the NCAA record book. Nearly 2,300 watched them end their dive against Marist.

In the reality of the local arenas, fans say they come for a combination of reasons.

Small-college games satisfy a basic interest in the game for fans like O'Malley, many of whom are unwilling to spend the time and money to take in games of the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East.

For a fan like Jamie Ryan, a 39-year-old father of two who was spotted at a sparsely attended Towson game, "it's a night out with the kids, and it's inexpensive."

Towson sophomores Fred Genau and Merv White, interviewed that same night, came to watch the dance team. They said they wouldn't have known about the game had a friend on the dance team not told them she was performing at halftime.

Finally, loyalty draws. The Rev. James Gray, 67, of Pleasant Zion Baptist Church in Dundalk, is a regular watcher of games at Coppin, dating back to when his daughter attended the school in the 1980s. "I'm relaxed when I'm here," Gray said. "I don't worry about a thing. I love ball. I love the game."

From the perspective of the athletes, the effect of a small crowd depends on whom you ask. UMBC senior forward Eugene Young believes the effect is minimal. "More people helps you, but if you like to play this game, you can play in front of one person or 17,000 people in College Park," he said.

While players are immersed in their jobs on the court, though, crowds certainly provide a greater incentive. Thus the phrase "home-court advantage."

"It's tough to get pumped up," Loyola sophomore guard Charlie Bell said of smaller turnouts, "so when there are a lot of fans, that gets our energy going." In front of a big crowd at the turnaround game against Marist, Bell scored 25 points.

Said Towson coach Michael Hunt of the effect of a big crowd: "Maybe that's the difference between us making a key defensive stop.

"Right now, we're not a talented enough team to just walk out and beat the other teams. We hope to be there, but now, we have to create an exciting basketball atmosphere."

That's entertainment

One of the hurdles the local schools face is competition for the entertainment dollar. With consecutive Final Four appearances, including a national title in 2002, Maryland casts a long shadow over other college programs, not only in the Baltimore area, but also in Washington.

Also, the Orioles have long been an institution, and the Ravens have become one.

That's enough to make it tough on the average athletic program looking for attention, even without indoor soccer offered by the Blast, and pro basketball and hockey down the road in the form of Washington's Wizards and Capitals.

It's not just a Baltimore problem. The NCAA's statistics for attendance over the previous four years show that it's a major advantage not to have to compete against pro sports. Half of the 50 schools with the worst attendance last year had to go head-to-head with both NBA and NHL teams in the winter.

Tom Maier, who does marketing for UMBC, saw this when the school was in the Northeast Conference for five years and sees it again this season as the Retrievers are in the America East.

The larger struggles in the NEC were at schools like St. Francis and Long Island - both in Brooklyn, N.Y., and both of whom struggle to break 700 for average attendance. The situation is similar with Boston schools Northeastern and Boston University.

"It would be nice to be the only school in town," Maier said. "The same schools that have the best attendance in the America East are the same schools who had the best attendance in the Northeast Conference - schools where they're the only school there, where they are the entertainment for the community."

But in this area, the colleges compete against each other for fans and of course, against Maryland. The Terps are so strong they can go head-to-head in popularity with teams from both the NBA and NHL in the winter and yet end up among the nation's attendance leaders. For the 2002-03 season, their average attendance of 17,566 ranked them fifth.

One strategy colleges can take is to aggressively market to students on the campuses. Around the Beltway, that tends to be a small target. Towson, for example, has fewer than 5,000 students in residence on campus, and the numbers are even less at the other schools.

So the recent flap about student behavior at Maryland's basketball games must seem like a cruel joke to former Towson associate athletic director Larry Martin, or any marketing official at a smaller school whose duty is to entice students to watch the home team.

"In a lot of cases, they'll stay home and watch Duke and Maryland," said Martin, now athletic director at Eastern Mennonite in Virginia.

So, in a sense, the unruly students seen on television keep would-be unruly students from acting up in the gyms on their campuses. It's a small favor that perhaps the schools should thank someone for, but it doesn't solve the problem of filling their stands.

At UMBC, the remedy has been to aggressively market its games at elementary schools, youth basketball leagues and churches in the Catonsville and Arbutus areas. Players and coaches visit and invite youths and adults to the team's games.

This season, team attendance stands at 1,736, with the season high of 3,106 coming for the game against Princeton on Dec. 2. Much of that total, as with many games, consisted of fans who entered the arena for free. That doesn't bother the school's athletic director, Charlie Brown.

"My concern at this point is not how much money we bring in at the gate," Brown said, "but that we have an atmosphere where we feel like the game is a happening."

Loyola, which has nearly tripled its average attendance to 1,171, has been using a spirit committee to urge students to come to Reitz Arena. The group helped attract 2,296 fans to the Saint Peter's game in mid-December, with nearly a quarter of the school's enrollment represented at the game.

But the Greyhounds were still in the midst of their skid and lost, 80-66.

"We had a tremendous amount of students at that game - if we win a game like that, it feeds off itself," said Loyola assistant athletic director Marty Kelly last December. "Winning is a critical factor, but it's not the only factor."

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