Building home-court hostility
Outside the Smith Center on Saturday afternoon – the day after Valentine’s Day – the adoration for the men’s basketball team was palpable. Ticket scalpers floated through the pre-game swarm and NBC satellite trucks lined F Street as fans shuffled off the icy sidewalks and into the arena.
GW went into Saturday’s matchup undefeated at home this season, building what Massachusetts head coach Derek Kellogg would call a “hostile environment” after his team broke that streak. But nurturing that hostility – and creating a home-court advantage – takes work.
For those groups charged with breeding GW fervor for two hours every home game, game day is a meticulously calculated stretch filled with chants, video cues and song selections that try to cover fans in goosebumps. From the athletics department’s marketing team to the student groups Colonial Army and Colonial Brass, a winning basketball team makes those routines more critical.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on to keep momentum in the gym,” said Nicole Early, assistant athletic director for marketing and tickets. “But when our students are here in full force it makes our job so much easier because they are the ones that are creating excitement for everyone who comes.”
Even as the Colonials try to muscle their way through the season’s final bend and into the NCAA Tournament, success still seems new. Just last year, GW was nearly last in the Atlantic 10 in attendance.
But with three sellouts so far this season and a 19-win team in the top tier of the A-10, enthusiasm is back at a University often derided by its own students for a lack of school spirit.
“We don’t have football, so we feel that our job is to build a product and I feel we are doing that,” athletics director Patrick Nero said. “For what you consider the GW community – current students, alumni, Foggy Bottom residents and D.C. residents – this is the only time that all of those parties can come together, and that’s at GW basketball games.”
An early start
For the GW sports marketing team, the day starts at 9 a.m. when eight staff members jam into a small Smith Center control room – surrounded by monitors, sound boards and a loose basketball shoe atop a file cabinet – and go through a 20-page production agenda for that afternoon’s men’s basketball game.
The staff discusses everything in this 20-minute period: promotional activities and sound levels, entrances and exits, the best timing to display a Twitter poll. Next comes a walkthrough of every item to be displayed on the stadium screens. Staff members check the slides for spelling errors or misprints.
Nicole Early – in her 14th year with GW and her second year as assistant athletics director for marketing and tickets, leads the morning meeting – emphasizing that timing is everything when trying to cultivate the fan experience.
“I never played basketball, but as a fan … I feel like I can sense a crowd’s reaction and know the things the crowd is going to get excited about,” Early said.
One of those crucial moments is just before tip-off: the National Anthem. The silencing of the crowd before the song to generate an immediate buzz once it ends can be a tricky balance.
As Sgt. Jason Gottshall began to belt the final words of the anthem, Early observes from the baseline. She appears nervous as she waited for the cue to music by another marketing staff member, Matt Ackerman, sitting on media row.
A burst of applause by the Smith Center audience is closely followed by the stadium anthem “Seven Nation Army” over the public address speakers – a go-to song in Ackerman’s repertoire. Cue instant relief from Early as the Colonial Army, the student fan group, erupts.
Early hopes that the environment her staff creates is memorable and that some aspect of the game will stay with the fan long after the game ends.
“I think that’s the thing I enjoy the most is being able to be a part of a memory that these students are going to remember 20 years out of college,” Early said. “If we can have you leave and come back 20 years later and say, ‘I remember that game,’ then we will have accomplished our jobs.”
Building a product
Patrick Nero, in his third year as GW’s athletic director, doesn’t sit back during basketball games. He takes a surprisingly hands-on approach for the athletic director of a Division I program, texting Early at least 10 times a game about when to blast music and when to let the band play.
When Nero was at University of Miami, he did Early’s job, focusing on the stadium experience and helping feed rabid Hurricane fans. “It’s where I kind of grew up in the business,” Nero said.
Now at GW, the men’s basketball team has found on-court success a year ahead of schedule, forcing the athletics department to catch up with more seating and more promotions.
“The job of an athletic director is to give the support to students in order to be successful. So part of that for us here is to provide a home-court advantage,” Nero said.
Both Nero and Early have roles to play in creating that advantage for GW’s teams who play at the Smith Center.
Increasing attendance and improving ticket sales are big parts of Nero’s game plan for improving the athletics department. Happier fans and more ticket sales at the Smith Center creates a cycle of success – more revenue for teams, which allows for more recruiting trips, higher-paid coaches, new scholarships and better facilities.
But while Nero has made flashy improvements to the arena’s facilities – like refinishing and redsigning the floor and million-dollar locker room renovations – he’s now turned his attention to attendance. Last year, the athletics department announced that all Class of 2013 alumni could attend home games for free, and last November it was announced that the $25 Colonial Army membership fee would be covered by the athletics department.
For Nero, there is no home-court advantage without a student presence. Even with the large crowds that have filled the Smith Center in recent games, at least half of those seats are being filled by free student tickets. But that’s okay – generating revenue from attendance is less important than having a strong crowd in the first place.
“We have to take an attitude and a philosophy of the students are part of the product,” Nero said. “It’s what separates and differentiates between professional sports and college sports. People who come to watch a GW basketball game, that’s part of it, it’s that environment that students set in the building.”
For Early, the marketing team works all week before the game to create crowd enthusiasm.
Just before the announcement of GW’s starting lineups, the marketing team played a flashback video highlighting the Colonials’ upset of Massachusetts from 1995. After a slow fade, Lil Jon’s “Don’t Drop for What” blared through the speakers, sparking a roar from students and alumni alike.
Strike up the band
With video sketches, half-court shot contests and pop music piped through the speakers, one group fights being muffled: the Colonial Brass. The band has rehearsals twice a week and plays at every home basketball game, but does not cut any students who want to join.
The band sees itself as timeless, playing at games on and off since 1931 – long before game day became a production of video screens and Top 40 music.
The band, which sits in the upper fan level during men’s games, see themselves as entertainers who can help calm heavy tension. While fans chant “bullshit” at contested referee calls, the band tries to lighten the mood.
But the band isn’t as celebrated as GW’s rivals in the area. Pep bands at George Mason and VCU, donning flashy uniforms and led by charismatic conductors, were named the No. 1 and 2 “most entertaining pep bands in college basketball” by the website Deadspin.
The atmosphere in the band section is jovial, as students play songs like “We’ve Got the Beat,” “Let’s Groove” and MGMT’s “Kids.”
“I think that spirit in the band is much friendlier than the spirit all around us. When it’s kind of friendly and when it’s kind of corny like that, it’s really easy to get in that rhythm,” said David Giordano, a freshman tuba player.
“For what you consider the GW community – current students, alumni, foggy bottom residents and D.C. residents – this is the only time that all of those parties can come together, and that’s at GW basketball games.”
Calling in extra troops
As the men’s basketball team took free-throws near the end of Saturday’s game, students in the bottom section raised their hands in unison for good luck, as they have all season. Under Massachusetts’ basket, dozens of male GW fans dressed in togas and standing on bleachers continue to chant, causing select members of the Colonial Army to politely yell “Shut up!” in their direction.
In a way, the Colonial Army sets the tone for the crowd – or at least tries to. If there’s any group of students capitalizing on the men’s basketball team’s success this year, it’s the Colonial Army. They are behind the cheers, the near-deafening noise, the giant cutouts of players and the catchy nicknames.
Led by sophomore Ian Mellul, members of the Colonial Army often takes games personally.
Down the stretch in Saturday’s loss to the Minutemen – the first home loss of the season for the men’s basketball team – fans’ faces contorted with stress. Mellul’s face was blank, staring at the GW players, many of whom are his close friends, as the game fell out of their reach.
“I don’t do well when it’s this close,” Mellul said. “I really feel it for Patricio. Pato is one of my best friends and when he puts up 20 points and you still lose, it’s tough to watch.”
They also welcomed a new group of super-fans to the Smith Center on Saturday. The fans dressed in togas were members of the men’s water polo team, who screamed at UMass players as they inbounded the ball and waved giant palm trees in the air. When television and arena cameras looked for the most crazed fans, their lenses were trained on the guys in togas.
“We like to have fun. We like to go for more of the extreme aspect, I think that’s where the togas come in,” said Paul Deasey, a senior men’s water polo player.
The two groups fed on each other off and the team’s runs. As fun as it can be to be a part of the student section, the fans still feel expectations to perform – and scream.
“The team is doing well, we’re doing well and obviously we ride the team’s success, to an extent,” Mellul said. “I was talking to coach Lonergan yesterday and he said, ‘We really need you Saturday.'”
‘Make some noise’
The Colonials were out of sync during most of Saturday’s game against Massachusetts, which they ended up losing 67-61.
But a late second half run started to change that. With 7:22 left to play, a tip-in by senior Isaiah Armwood coupled with an acrobatic reverse lay-up by sophomore Patricio Garino cut a UMass lead that was as large as 11 down to just a single point.
The scoring momentum ignited the crowd, which was speckled with celebrities like Mayor Vincent Gray and ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon.
But then, a standstill. A timeout called from the UMass bench halted the action and the crowd’s cheers. Within seconds, the Smith Center scoreboard read “Make some noise” in bright lights accompanied by the fan-favorite “Zombie Nation,” which blares over speakers in almost every sports arena across the country.
With sudden direction, the Smith Center erupted once again, sustaining their excitement until the Colonials retook the floor and scored the ensuing basket to take their first lead of the game since the 9:56 mark of the first half.
The turnaround was a brief victory for GW’s sports marketing team. It was a simple part of the game, but underlined the importance of seizing the crowd’s excitement – and shepherding fans in the right direction toward raucousness.
“From the logistics end, it’s being able to make decisions on the fly when we need to and being able to take advantage of those moments where we want to build momentum and how seamlessly we can make those moments feel really special,” Ackerman said.
– Josh Solomon and Everly Jazi contributed to reporting.