Last Thursday’s win over University of San Francisco was typical in more ways than one for a Gonzaga men’s basketball game in The Kennel.
After all, despite an underwhelming first half, the then-No. 2 Zags won by double digits against an overmatched West Coast Conference opponent in front of a sellout crowd for their 21st straight win.
But the game also continued another trend in The Kennel that has become more prevalent in the past few seasons. It was the 10th time this year students didn’t completely fill their allotted section — an occurrence that has become more common not only at GU, but across the nation for multiple big-time collegiate sports programs.
It was as recently as last fall that University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban ripped UA students’ attendance at home games, even when his team was No. 2 in the country.
“Everybody’s got to make a sacrifice,” Saban said after his team’s blowout win over New Mexico State on Sept. 9. “Everybody’s got to do something. Everybody wants to be No. 1. If I asked that whole student section, do you want to be No. 1? Nobody would hold their hand up and say I want to be No. 4. They would all say No. 1. But are they willing to do everything to be No. 1? That’s another question. You can ask them that. I don’t know the answer.”
For McCarthey Athletic Center, known as one of the hardest places in the country to play, the phenomenon has been interpreted by many as signifying a cultural shift among students. If students won’t come to see one of the nation’s top-ranked teams play at home, what will entice them to come and stay from tip to the final buzzer?
“In the past, we’ve been known as a top student section in the nation, having as many people there as possible and always having a crowded place no matter what,” said Matt Cranston, president of GU’s Kennel Club. “But I think now, it’s just the way the students are prioritizing themselves in different ways with school.”
Chris Johnson, GU’s associate director of athletics in charge of external operations, said attendance is an issue his department has paid close attention to in hopes of finding a remedy.
In assessing the data of student attendance that Athletics has gathered all season, Johnson pointed to another disconcerting trend among students at games: many are leaving early, especially when the Bulldogs have a convincing lead over a lower-tier opponent at half. Against USF, the student section was considerably sparser by the time the game ended compared to tipoff.
“We would love the students to take their full allotment,” Johnson said. “We’d also love to have the students stay for the entire game. But that’s the thing that we’re seeing.”
There’s also the issue of students claiming a ticket and not showing up for the game. Students who activate their Zagcards and do not attend the game only receive a warning after their first offense. After multiple offenses, the ability to activate an ID for a ticket can be suspended or revoked.
“We hope to be a great outlet for them to come and have a fun time, support the team, feel that community and be a part of it,” Johnson said. “But it’s tough for us when they take a ticket and then don’t show up or they take a ticket, show up and then leave early.”
Many students point to frustrations with GU Athletics’ ticket distribution process as a reason why they are less interested in attending games.
As was the case last week, ticket distribution is often an hours-long process, a significant time commitment some students don’t see as worthwhile. Last Sunday’s distribution for tickets to this week’s home slate against University of San Diego and Saint Mary’s had a line wrapping from the side door of McCarthey to the PACCAR Center, but many students were only interested in tickets to see the Zags play the Gaels.
“GU Athletics isn’t really prioritizing students’ study time,” senior Liam Mamikunian said. “From waiting in line for tickets and waiting before the game, to coming in two hours before tipoff. Personally, I’m not willing to go through all of that to watch us crush a team by 40.”
The highly sought-after nature of GU men’s basketball tickets — along with students’ seeming lack of interest in attending — inflamed many alumni and fans online who believed students were wasting an opportunity, especially considering not many student tickets around the country are free or in such a desirable place in the arena.
Cranston said The Kennel is one of a few college basketball arenas nationwide that allows student seats to be directly on the floor.
Peter Woodburn of SBNation’s Slipper Still Fits, a Gonzaga basketball fan blog, criticized students for not attending games after one-third of the student section was filled against Texas Southern on Dec. 4.
“As an alum, knowing how downright impossible it is to actually attend a game in Spokane, it pains me to see that opportunity go wasted by so many individuals,” he wrote. “The idea that ‘well it is just another garbage opponent, who cares’ attitude doesn’t really hold a lot of weight in my mind.”
The article ignited a debate among students and GU alumni and fans on social media, but Cranston echoed much of the same sentiment.
“I think that one of the things students don’t realize is that we have an opportunity to just watch, literally, history being made,” he said. “We’re a small school in Spokane that is quickly becoming a powerhouse in the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball.”
Regardless, there are certain positives to be found in student participation this year. Student attendance at primetime games against higher-profile opponents — namely North Carolina and BYU — was consistently at max capacity.
Johnson said he expects Saturday’s Senior Night against Saint Mary’s to be more of the same, and he hopes the ceremony honoring Adam Morrison’s jersey against USD will entice students to fill the section Thursday.
Attendance at women’s basketball games has gone up as well, likely due to the women’s team reaching a No. 11 national ranking in the AP Poll, as well as the convenience of home games earlier in the day. Most weekend women’s basketball games are in the early afternoon, as opposed to men’s weekend games in the evenings.
Attendance at nonbasketball events, such as men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball and baseball, has also seen yearly growth, Cranston said.
But for him, the absences at men’s basketball games are still felt even more strongly as March draws nearer.
“As the Kennel Club, as students, it’s our responsibility to continuously give our boys a seven-point advantage that [GU men’s basketball head coach] Mark Few has touted year after year,” Cranston said. “And out of any year, this is the year that we’re going to have to need the most support from the Kennel Club. Besides two or three games, we’re not living up to what Mark wanted us to do.