What comes first: A successful major-college basketball program or a solid fan base to support it? As “March Madness” fades into history, that’s a question pondered by Arkansas State University supporters.
The season ended too early for ASU’s men’s and women’s teams, an all too-common occurrence. After losing the Sun Belt Conference tournament finals in heart-breaking fashion, the women’s team played in the National Invitation Tournament but went out in the first round.
The men’s team won an epic four-overtime game against its arch rival, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, then had nothing left for the regular-season champion, Georgia State University.
It’s a fact of life for Sun Belt teams that you must win the conference championship to go to the “big dance,” the NCAA Tournament. That’s automatic, but few SBC teams make it otherwise, no matter how good their record. Georgia State stumbled in the SBC finals, then could only get an NIT spot despite a record of 24-9, better than eventual national runner-up Kentucky had.
Only one ASU team has gone to the NCAA Tournament. That was in 1999, when the men’s team under Coach Dickey Nutt finished second in the regular season but won the conference tournament, then made a quick exit in the NCAA, finishing at 18-12 overall.
This year’s team ended at 19-13 but didn’t really come close.
The women’s team did and should have won the NCAA slot, waltzing through league play at 14-4 and taking a double-digit lead into the last eight minutes of the championship game in New Orleans.
At the 8-minute timeout the Red Wolves pep band played the ASU fight song, a tradition to encourage the team. I stood up but looked around the contingent of ASU fans, and only a few others were also standing. I have no reason to believe that affected the team, but it certainly didn’t help. And it was not atypical.
ASU will have a successful major-college basketball program when it has a major-college fan base. I’m not sure which will come first, but you don’t have to watch many NCAA tournament games to see that those two things go hand-in-hand.
This is not to disparage the many fans who followed the teams to New Orleans, paying exorbitant hotel fees and enduring heavy traffic to get to Lakefront Arena. Most of us are season-ticket holders for one team or both, and many also participate in the coaches’ support groups.
Nevertheless, the fan base — those who buy season tickets — is aging and isn’t being replaced. Many still buy the tickets but seldom show up. And, let’s face it, for most of us our “rowdy” days are behind us.
Missing from ASU basketball games are students and young alumni. Worse, the students who don’t attend games today aren’t likely to become fans after college.
Attendance for the men’s games goes down almost every year, not matter how good the teams are. The high point this season was against UALR on Jan. 25, when 5,631 fans showed up. From 1987, when the Convocation Center opened, through 1999, that would have been a below-average crowd.
Only 1,884 watched when ASU played Georgia State on March 4. With better weather two days later just 450 more turned out for the Louisiana-Monroe game.
For home women’s games attendance reached its pinnacle in 2004-05 and has generally been flat since then.
Blame it on the coaches, if you wish. But ASU has proven head coaches in John Brady and Brian Boyer, who have delivered winning teams year after year. Replacing them does not guarantee a bigger fan base and might cause further decline.
Meanwhile, ASU is producing winners on the football field and putting more fans in the stands. Contrary to what some national sportscasters have said, Gus Malzahn didn’t start that. Credit Steve Roberts, and each coach since him has managed to benefit from and build on the success.
We now have an excited fan base that includes young and old, students and alumni.
But football teams have an advantage in that post-season play is not limited to the conference champion. ASU has won or shared SBC titles the past three years, but a good record may bring a bowl bid for two or three other teams.
What will it take to have similar success in basketball?
Athletic Director Terry Mohajir has made some positive changes, making the Convo Center more fan friendly. But more can be done.
It must start by getting the students to games. ASU erred long ago in relegating students to one “end zone.” In the old Indian Field House we had prime seats — one side was usually filled with students. Greek groups, which are key to student spirit, could sit together.
Find some prime seats for students, and allow groups to reserve seats. Let them sit together, and they’ll be loud. Other students will follow.
Establish a method for season-ticket holders who can’t attend a certain game to resell or donate their tickets to someone who can use them. UALR does that.
Find a solution to the parking dilemma. If many fans complain about the parking — and they do — there is a problem.
ASU has too many empty parking places and too many empty seats in prime areas. Both need to be filled.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.