Putting fans in stands constant struggle here

College basketball: The Baltimore area's five Division I men's programs aren't exactly packing in the crowds.

February 07, 2004|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

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.

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