January 20, 2006

Between the Lines: Time is ripe for b-ball Beach Night

A UAA championship, a Final Four appearance, and a ninth-place finish at nationals. One Rhodes Scholar. Four postseason berths. Five nationally ranked squads. Six All-Americans. Ten consecutive wins.

The sheer number of varsity programs that are reaching new heights, in just the first half of this school year is unprecedented. It’s time for fan support to reach the same level.

This problem has been my top focal point since joining the Maroon Sports team almost two years ago. It’s always been clear to me is that there is a lot of potential for making sporting events into the happening place on campus. Free, high-quality, and close by, games should be where people go to see and to be seen, offering the kind of social cohesion that the University community has long lacked.

We’re undoubtedly a lot closer to that ideal than we’ve ever been before. Tonight at the men’s and women’s basketball teams’ “Beach Night,” a lot of people will get the chance to see just how far Maroons athletics have come.

A lot has changed since last January, when we printed a column by then third-year staffer John Dwyer entitled “If You Sell It, We Will Come.” Dwyer identified three main issues with the athletic department’s efforts to gain student support: 1) lack of significant advertising, 2) failure to sell competitions as social events, and 3) far too few promotions. All were valid criticisms. The athletic department under Tom Weingartner has done a superb job of building programs, but it has been much less creative in cultivating a fan base.

But students and a few coaches have taken charge to address those shortcomings, and their hard work will be in full effect at Friday night’s basketball games. Women’s basketball head coach Aaron Roussell first came up with the concept of an annual Beach Night. Through his efforts, and with the help of men’s head coach Mike McGrath and the new Phoenix Phanatix RSO, Ratner will become the site of a sea of Hawaiian shirts, beach towels, and grass skirts. With students getting lei-ed at the door, the Friday evening games should be an even better weekend entertainment option than they usually are.

The promotions and advertising have been taken up a notch as well, with banners, flyers, and e-mails bombarding students with promises of $100 and $150 prizes for the best dressed individual and house. Even more enticingly, volunteers will be distributing free Hawaiian-style pizza from Pizza Capri during breaks in the action, giving fans a delicious accompaniment to a pair of Maroons wins.

Most important, in my opinion, is the extra effort being put into making sure residential houses get to the game. The athletic department is not only sending out e-mails to resident heads to try and cultivate group trips but also offering monetary incentives, holding three $100 drawings for houses in attendance. The dorms have been long been an untapped source for fan support, and the athletic department will reap huge benefits from reaching out to those students. Maroons events will truly become a key part of campus life once houses—the source of a significant part of our initial social life at school—incorporate games into their regular schedules. We’ve already seen some houses at soccer, football, and basketball games supporting their friends—exactly the way I first got involved with Chicago athletics—but now it’s time to take it to the level of making it a large-scale staple.

The administrators and coaches in our athletic department are very good at what they do, offering solid options for sports fans. But the incremental gains that they’ve been able to earn through improving the athletic facilities and teams could very well become huge leaps with the dedicated people that are now taking charge. Both Roussell and fourth-year Jacqui de Leon, the current Phoenix Phanatix president, have blazed new paths in the field of fan support.

Honestly, I am more optimistic than ever about the prospects of the Chicago Maroons becoming a huge part of our campus. The women’s soccer Elite Eight game last November was probably the moment that gave me the most reason to believe our school community is ready to make sports big here. With some small-scale efforts to advertise the game, people came out in droves, lining the sidelines and watching one of the most exciting and important overtime finishes we’ve seen on our fields. I knew it had hit a new level when the players were telling me afterward how appreciative and pleased they were with the turnout. We even had students inquiring whether there would be an online webcast of the game. As recently as last year there was no broadcast, and there was little demand for one.

All I can say is that it’s about damn time. This school needs a place where fun comes to life.