With an influx of young talent and increased University promotional efforts, the GW men’s basketball team’s attendance is up this season after a three-year decline. But despite a 15 percent increase in attendance, the Colonials’ crowds remain among the worst in the Atlantic 10.
While the average attendance has increased only slightly over the past year, up nearly 400 fans to 2,993 per game, the Colonials’ loss to Dayton Jan. 18 drew a crowd of 4,102, the Smith Center’s largest men’s crowd in almost two years.
“I don’t remember fan support being this good my freshman year,” senior Josh Zembik said, noting the fluctuation of crowds over the past few seasons. “These last few games really stand out as far as the crowd goes.”
After attendance went down with the team’s decreased win totals over the past few seasons, increased student support this year has not gone unnoticed by coaches and players.
“It’s beautiful,” sophomore point guard T.J. Thompson said. “The crowd is so supportive and we appreciate them. I don’t think they know how much they help us. They keep sticking by us through thick and thin.”
Last Tuesday’s game against No. 19 Xavier was indicative of how crowd support has increased. Thirty minutes before tip off, the student section was already packed with students decked out in their complimentary anti-Xavier T-shirts. Painted faces peppered the crowd and Xavier heckling began early and lasted throughout the game.
After the game, second-year head coach Karl Hobbs continued his tradition of thanking the crowd for its participation.
“They stand up the entire game and they’re into every play,” Hobbs said Friday. “This team is so young and very social. They are out publicly around campus and I think the student body feels like they’re a part of things.”
Hobbs said he has been especially impressed with a new student trend of bringing boxes of Corn Pops to the game in honor of freshman forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu.
“I walk out and see the boxes, I wish they were calling me out in the starting line up,” Hobbs said. “Whoever made that up should be a marketing major.”
But despite the increase in crowd numbers and support, GW men’s basketball attendance is still the third worst in the Atlantic 10, ahead of only Fordham and LaSalle.
Rhode Island, which has a similar enrollment to GW with 10, 647 students, has drawn 5,373 per game this year in its newly constructed Ryan Center. Saint Joseph’s draws just over 100 more fans per game than GW but has only 3,750 undergraduates and a building that seats just 3,200.
While some students remain supportive of the men’s basketball team, others say they have grown tired of seeing the team lose. Since GW’s last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1999, the program has endured off-court embarrassments that led to suspensions and an arrest as well as struggles on the court, which reached a low point during last year’s 10-game losing streak.
Some students said they just don’t have time for games while others claimed they never know when the games are.
“If (the team was) better, I’d try and get to more games,” sophomore Steve Gervin said.
Washington area fans that have attended games regularly said the atmosphere in the Smith Center has seen a sharp decline since the mid-1990’s.
Tom Kappler, a native of Vienna, Va. and a season ticket holder of eight years, said going to GW basketball games has not been the same since Mike Jarvis left as head coach in 1998.
“This place used to be packed for every game back then,” he said.
Frank Costello, a Washington lawyer and seven-year season ticket holder, said he is not surprised that crowds have been sparse over the past few years given the team’s struggles. But Costello said he believes a large crowd increase will come if the team continues to improve and that he is impressed with Hobbs’ performance so far.
But some students said they simply don’t mind waiting for the team to start winning again.
“Winning just isn’t that important,” junior Juli Marcovich said. “The crowd is great. It’s the best I’ve ever seen here.”
While fans and students wait for the men’s basketball team to improve, they have a consistent winner in the GW women’s basketball team The women have tallied 20 or more wins in 11 of the past 12 seasons, including nine NCAA Tournament appearances. Friday’s win over Dayton marked the women’s 11th-straight victory but attendance at the Smith Center has been dismal at 857 fans per game compared to 1,434 on average last year.
GW women’s basketball head coach Joe McKeown said he is disappointed fans haven’t been coming out in light of the team’s success.
“We need to create some more excitement among students,” McKeown said. “Across the board, everyone needs to be involved. We try, but there are a lot of things going on.”
McKeown said the scheduling may have something to do with the limited support. “Four home games in one week is asking a lot,” he said, referring his team’s simultaneous homestand with the men’s team last week.
Without a football team, GW’s primary fall sports teams are men’s and women’s soccer, both of which had historic seasons this year. The men’s soccer team won the A-10 Tournament, the women’s team earned an A-10 Tournament berth, and both teams saw increases in attendance.
A little more than 100 fans per game made the trip to Mount Vernon to watch men’s soccer games last fall, while women’s attendance averaged 138 per game. When the men’s team played at American University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the majority of the 1,876 in attendance were students who trekked from Foggy Bottom.
So with crowd support and talent on the rise, imagine how many students would make the trip to a men’s basketball NCAA Tournament game. We’ll have to wait to find out.