Inside Rhodes Arena on Wednesday, the lobby was being painted. The job wasn’t finished, but the area was visibly brighter, also thanks to new lighting for the court and its entrance provided by a donor of the men’s basketball program.
In the wake of the Zips’ NCAA Tournament appearance seven months ago, there could be more such improvements, likely along the lines of the team lounges that opened two years ago. Director of Athletics Tom Wistrcill said UA received about $500,000 from its extra share of the NCAA Tournament pie. Wistrcill said March Madness money is divided among Mid-American Conference teams, with qualifying teams receiving more.
But paint and lights and lounges don’t cover up the real issue. The Zips need a new basketball arena. They might not get it unless attendance rises at men’s games.
They need sellouts, and that’s a tough sell.
Half of Rhodes Arena’s 5,500 seats are general admission, which means two hours perched on a wooden bleacher. The Zips could score 100 points every game, and those two hours wouldn’t get any more comfortable.
To help turn UA basketball into a “see and be seen” event, UA marketing director Brad Swanson’s goal is more games with 5,000 or more fans. Two years ago, the Zips reached that target only once, against Kent State. Last season, they hit it five times. Swanson hopes for nine or 10 this season, which would increase demand for other games.
The fall semester, which ends with final exams Dec. 9-13, is traditionally a dead period. UA’s high-profile nonconference games are on the road. Many fans are still in football mode (although not necessarily Zips’ football mode). Swanson knows the 5,000 mark isn’t attainable when students aren’t on campus.
In coach Keith Dambrot’s nine-year tenure, the highest announced attendance in the fall semester was just over 4,000 against the University of Dayton in 2008-09.
To me, born in the basketball state of Kentucky, that’s almost incomprehensible. UA has had eight consecutive seasons with 22 or more victories, made three NCAA Tournament appearances in the past five years and has a league-best 210 conference victories since 2004.
To right one wrong, UA is making a huge pitch to draw 5,000 for the home opener Nov. 8 against Coastal Carolina, the Zips’ lone Division I foe before fall break.
The women’s MAC East championship and the men’s MAC regular-season and tournament titles will be celebrated in a men’s and women’s doubleheader starting at 5:30 p.m., with the men’s game at 8. A copy of the women’s banner will be given to the first 500 in attendance, but the real prize is a replica of the men’s MAC title ring, which will be distributed to 2,000 fans selected from scratch-off cards passed out at the door.
The ring has a sparkling front with a blue “Z” in the middle. One side reads “Back 2 Back Champs. NCAA. 26-7,” while the other side has a basketball with the motto “Think Bigger.”
Dambrot might be flattered by the ring promotion, but he’s thinking bigger.
“The school has to continue to do more,” he said Wednesday at UA basketball media day at Rhodes Arena. “We need to keep putting our money into things that are good investments. I’m biased; I think we’re a good investment. We have the capabilities of making the school money and getting good publicity for the school.”
In season-ticket sales, UA has made strides from 2012-13, which set program records. New season tickets are up 33 percent from last year, total season tickets (including renewals) have risen 15 percent and those distributed (which includes sponsors and comps) are up 6 percent. Those figures are expected to rise before Nov. 8. UA surpassed last year’s season-ticket record three weeks ago.
The Zips have lowered the season-ticket price in general admission sections called the “Zips Zone” from $100 to $75. That includes a seat cushion, a guaranteed ring on Nov. 8 and a $10 credit toward the first MAC Tournament game.
They are rolling out billboards, one featuring MAC Player of the Year candidate Demetrius “Tree” Treadwell. “I was kind of amazed, like ‘That’s me,’ ” Treadwell said of his reaction when he saw himself larger than life. Others have some swagger, like one that reads “22-plus wins. Eight straight seasons. All we do is win,” and shows Dambrot cutting down the nets in Quicken Loans Arena.
“We need to sell out every night so we can get what we need to get,” Dambrot said. “We will eventually. It’s just a little slower.”
It wasn’t hard to tell what the obviously impatient Dambrot meant. He wants a new arena to lure more talented players who can bring the Zips NCAA Tournament victories, not just appearances. He’s ready for the consequences; he’s feeling them already.
“There’s no question there’s pressure,” he said. “Our expectation level is NCAA or bust. Beyond that it’s NCAA win or bust. We want to play in the NCAA Tournament. We’re not going to be happy until we win a game or two or three.”
There’s no question fans will show up when the UA program reaches that level. But Dambrot needs them now so the Zips can get what they need to get.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com.