Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Where Did All the Terrapins Go?

As I sit here typing, the Cincinnati- University of Minnesota game is on the television. Last night, I watched portions of the Michigan- Notre Dame game (double OT for the Wolverines). This morning I caught the highlights from yesterday's St. Joseph's- Hofstra game (OT for the Dutchmen). And I watched every minute of Saturday morning's Maryland- Manhattan game (Manhattan in a game that wasn't as close as the final score). It's safe to say, I've seen my fair share of this year's NIT.

My dominant reaction is disappointment. The games, by and large, have been well played, hard fought matchups. By and large. The glaring exception is my beloved Maryland Terrapins. Which is not to say that the Maryland players gave inadequate effort on the court. However, something was missing. Certainly, something was missing for the team most of the season. They never played up to their abilities in the most important games. Win or go home games, even in the NIT, certainly qualify.

More than anything else, the missing factor was the support. Or more narrowly speaking, the crowd. Watching Saturday's game (with, yes, an 11AM tipoff on the first day of Spring Break for an NIT game), the vast stretches of empty seats- good seats- struck me. But I told myself, it's the NIT. What can you expect?

What you can expect are packed houses (or at least packed enough that the fan at home can't tell the difference), raucous crowds, and honest to goodness home court advantages. Cincinnati, Michigan, and St. Joe's fans showed up. Pulling on my experiences as a student, many paying customers show up or don't depending on the opponent. On their own, they watch the games on campus the same way paying customers watch an NBA game. Politely, from their seats, clapping approvingly, cheering only when prompted. The students are an entirely different case. Loud, standing, yelling, stomping, chanting, going wild after defense steals, exploding after key baskets, occasionally as in need of a timeout as the players on the court, and- during the most charged of moments- causing the entire crowd to rise and yell. When I say the Cincinnati, Michigan, and St. Joe's fans showed up, I really mean the students. And the Maryland ones didn't.

One could apologize for the Maryland students and fans. Maryland, the 2002 NCAA Champions, just missed The Tournament for the second straight year after participating in The Tournament for 11 straight years. After just missing, for the second straight year, the NIT is a disappointment. The team and coach certainly sent that message, initially declaring they would decline an invitation to the NIT only to learn they had already committed themselves to playing. But is Cincinnati not just as disappointed? They also just missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a long while. Their fans, however, showed up for an NIT game. What gives?

I don't know how Cincinnati or Michigan or St. Joe's distributes tickets. I don't know when their Spring Breaks fall. Maybe those are the factors which really matter. Disappointed as I am- in the play of 'my' team and in the dedication of 'my' co-fans- I can't say I'm surprised. The Maryland administration/ athletic department has been seeking a more cosmopolitan crowd since the Comcast Center opened for the 2002-03 season. Prior to Comcast, when games were played in Cole Field House, students picked up their tickets ahead of time, presented their student ID and a student ticket at the door, and sat in the student section (front to back row along the bench sideline with some overflow behind the baskets). Picking up tickets for the big games involved lining up at the ticket window when distribution began two weeks or so before the game (or occasionally spending the night in Cole for the really big games). Getting good seats meant walking through the doors when they opened (two hours before game time). This system was abusable. Former students (ahem, yours truly for a season there) who still had their IDs and friends in school could go to the games (as could a visiting friend who looked a bit like someone else's borrowed ID).

With the move to Comcast, the University instituted a new distribution policy. Students request tickets on a website. Depending on availability, tickets are awarded on a lottery basis. Each ticket you get (and game you subsequently attend) earns points which increase your chances of getting a lottery drawn ticket. Your custom ticket (which can be printed up in your dorm room) has your name and student ID number on it. No transfers are possible. Additionally, students are assigned entry times (staggered to avoid lines, queuing up, etc) with earlier times given to students with more points. While theoretically encouraging and rewarding loyalty, the system strikes me as far too clean and passionless. This is exactly what the University wanted- a cleaner, less disruptive distribution plan (and for fair reasons- what school wants kids skipping class and sleeping on concrete for tickets instead of doing their work?). And now they have it and all that comes with it. The students have far less invested- in time, in preparation, in effort- in going to any single game. Cumulatively, this adds up. The fans are less devoted. The players- who in college truly do feed off the crowd- receive less of a lift. In turn, the fans devotion is even less. And on and on it spirals. Until the going gets rough and there's no one there to help pick you up. Like last Saturday. It is a sad turn of events made even more so by the love and dedication fans at a Cincinnati or Michigan are able to show their team, even under disappointing circumstances.

The game is now over. Cincinnati and its fans get to cheer another day. Hopefully Maryland's will as well.

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