Finally, after what was possibly the worst two-and-a-half month stretch in the history of Virginia Tech men's basketball, the 2013-14 season is over. I know there's a conference tournament game still to come (and yes, a singular game, let's not kid ourselves), but I think it's time to assess the most dilapidated sport on campus.
Now I know what you're all thinking, that winning cures all ills and if new Athletic Director Whit Babcock fires head coach James Johnson, everything else will sort itself out. While that is definitely up for debate, this problem stems from something deeper than just the product on the court.
Fixing the problem that the men's basketball team has become goes much further than the job of one man. We can all have our disagreements over whether or not JJ should retain his post, and I'm sure Babcock has been thinking long and hard about that decision. However, what Whit needs to look at is how to undo the damage done to the program by years of inattentiveness. A general malaise and lack of creativity has cut this program off at the knees, and it has finally caught up to it in the program's worst season.
The team is rudderless, and television cameras in Cassell frame an apathetic fan base as they pan around broadcasting one Hokie surrounded by five empty seats. Attendance is down because the team is losing, but it's not like the current atmosphere would drive people to come to games anyway. Attendance is also down because the athletic department has created zero incentive for fans to attend home games.
Now, you may wonder how much of this is actually on the shoulders of the athletic department. The team didn't even hit double digits in the win column, is there anything that they can really do? It's a fair question, but one that doesn't explain what I'm about to tell you.
Obviously, attendance has been dreadful over the last two seasons, dipping to an average of 4,800 fans per home contest this year (roughly 49% capacity of the nearly 10,000 seat Cassell). While it's nice to blame a losing team, we all need to remember that this is not a two-year trend. Attendance for basketball games has been dropping over the past five seasons. Even when Seth Greenberg's teams were ripping off 20-win seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11, they only filled up the place about half the time.
Why is that? Those teams with Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen were fun. Swagger-filled at both their best and worst, they could legitimately beat anyone in the conference on any given night. If attendance is solely indicative of the win/loss record of the team, why did the 2009-10 team, a team that started 21-4 mind you, only sell out 7 of a possible 19 home games? Sure, three of those were NIT games but that's neither here nor there. Why did a team that ended up finishing 25-9 only sell out 37% of its home games?
Just as there's an excuse now (poor play), there was an excuse that's even more puzzling: Virginia Tech is a football school. I know most of you have heard this in the past, and some of you may have said it yourselves. Virginia Tech fans are so football crazy that they simply can't support both the football and basketball team.
There is one thing about this point that I cannot argue. People love going to games in Lane Stadium. From people who haven't missed a game in 10 years, to the people who have only made it to one, it's an experience that you won't forget. From tailgating to Enter Sandman, key plays, screaming your lungs out on defense, and doing the Hokie Pokie, a game in Lane just makes you shake your head and think about how good we as fans have it. In fact, I'm sure you just smiled a little bit after reading the last sentence. It's just a natural reaction that we can't help anymore. Did you notice, though, one specific thing that I left off of that list? The games themselves.
Sure, nerds like us will remember where we were sitting on the day of insert historical Tech football moment here, but the majority of the fans in the stadium from week-to-week will remember the things that made their personal experience different than the game itself. They'll remember the atmosphere, the emotion, and at the end of the day it's what keeps people coming back, even if the team performs below expectations.
Out of everything I just talked about, why would it be so impossible to instill that into the basketball program? Why can't the Virginia Tech athletic department provide such an experience that makes parents want to take their children on a Saturday afternoon? That makes students feel like they would be missing out if they don't go? That provides the type of atmosphere in Lane six games a fall, which was once experienced in Cassell?
As tough as it may seem, it's not impossible, in fact it's not even that hard. It just takes some creativity and innovation, the ability to change things up when it's clear that they have gone stale. That's the type of thinking that the past administration either lacked or didn't care enough to apply while watching Tech hoops games morph into something so old, tired, and boring that nothing could really save it.
What can Babcock do to turn the ship around? Well, I've thought of a ton of things that could improve his product, but I would first direct him to this blog post by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in which he details his experiences at a SMU basketball game. In it he makes a ton of excellent points, but one stuck out to me on a higher level:
If your team finds itself struggling, or if its [sic] expected to win you are in the same boat. Your hardcore fans are going to come. But you have to work harder than ever before to create value for your fans. It is during these times, when you can't control what happens on the court, that you have to work hard to improve the game experience. Not by providing apps or stats. Fans who like those things know where to get them from other sources already. Not by focusing on creating online communities. Online communities are like talk radio. The same 200 people call and participate in both.
You have to invest in things that are universally fun for your customers and prospects. EVERYONE remembers their first game. EVERY parent gets unlimited joy from watching their child enjoy a sporting event. You have to make sure that the entertainment that you provide is not only family friendly, but also engaging for all the 6 to 12 year olds in the audience. If you think those kids care about basketball you are delusional. If you think those parents care more about basketball than keeping their kids entertained for 2 hours, you are delusional and should quit your job immediately. All you have to do is remember this — EVERYONE STANDS UP FOR T SHIRTS.
All-caps aside, it's necessary to create a better in-game experience for fans, one that completely reinvents the culture of Hokie basketball fandom. The team needs its own Sandman, its own key plays and its own Hardees Chicken Tender Tailgate Shuffle. Make the game enjoyable to people on a level that, even if they watch a blowout, they want to come back. Create an in-game atmosphere that's bigger than the individual game itself.
On a larger scale, a revamped in-game experience will eventually solve the attendance problem. If anything, it's a safety net for the down years unavoidable by most every program. Things were working well enough, so the previous regime stuck with what they were doing instead of innovating. It didn't matter that things were getting slowly worse, it was working well enough that there was no need to change. To use another football parallel, fans have crushed the previous offensive staff for being stagnant, uninventive, and not adapting over time. Things were going well, and even though the landscape of college football (not to mention the ACC) was changing around them, they kept plugging along like it was 2007.
Well, things were going well for a few years and the quality of basketball was selling itself. Then the relationship with Greenberg started to devolve, and in the course of three years the team was left coach-less, directionless, and seemingly without a contingency. There was a morbid curiosity as to who would be named the next head coach, but the program had already become stale. No one felt the need to go to games, and why would they? Same ticket prices, same environment, same everything, all the while the quality of the on-court product worsened. If people didn't feel the pull to go to a Tech game in 2009, why would they go in 2013? It was a question that was deflected by Jim Weaver and company for years, blaming the lack of season ticket sales on the economy or having more home games than usual. Again, issues that could have been combated, but instead were reasoned away.
I realize that this is a pretty tall task to ask of a man who's barely even a month on the job, but after those attendance numbers I threw out, it's pretty clear that the team is currently on life support at best. If I could take him aside, I would suggest these five things immediately, and go from there:
Find Its Own Sandman
As crazy as it sounds, this is probably the easiest item on my list to pull off. As hard as it may be for some to remember, Enter Sandman hasn't always been a Hokie football tradition. In fact, it was thought up in a meeting room of the marketing department in 2000. Since then it's amped up crowds for opponents as big as Clemson, Florida State, and Miami to the Appalachian States and Western Carolinas of the world. It just works. Well, this can this be done with hoops in a variety of ways. The Miami Heat used In The Air Tonight. I traveled to Tech-Maryland last year, and came away really impressed with the atmosphere of a game that was held in the middle of winter break. Sure, they used the now-cliche Zombie Nation, but it works for them. Just find an intro that makes Tech unique, cut the lights, use a spotlight, and get the crowd get amped up.
Revamp the Cassell Guard
The section was previously titled "Do away with the Cassell Guard", but I don't think that's particularly fair. In case you didn't know, the Cassell Guard is supposed to be the entire Virginia Tech student section, although really the only people that take pride in it apply to be there. If you're going to have a student section with a name, you have to play it up. The Cameron Crazies are crazy for a reason, and while they take it to the extreme at least they earn their name. If you want it to be known that "Cassell Guard Stands Watch over their Home Court" (or whatever cheesy slogan they come up with), you have to make sure they do it right. I'm talking signs, orchestrated cheers, whatever. They need to be noticeably different from the rest of the crowd, which leads me to my next point.
Two Words: Student. Bleachers.
This is going to take some big time commitment from the athletic department, but I'm talking about ripping up the seats directly behind one of the benches and replacing them with bleachers filled with students. Currently the student section is sequestered at one end of the court, which makes no sense for a multitude of reasons. The bleachers would sit lower to the ground than the rest of the stands, therefore not blocking the view of an elderly couple that can't stand the entire game, but are so close to the court that it makes the students feel like they can directly impact the course of the game. Why do students prefer to sit in the North End Zone for football games? The seats aren't as good, and it's tough at times to know exactly what's going on. That doesn't matter. Students love the NEZ for two reasons: they're surrounded by other students, creating a chaotic and energetic environment, and they're close to the field. Even the seats in the uppermost section of the NEZ are lower than the majority of any other part of the student section. Kids love being close to the field, it only energizes them more, creating the type of atmosphere that makes college games electric.
Hold Season Ticket Holders Accountable
I know those attendance numbers during the Greenberg era look favorable, but anyone who went to a multitude of those games against schools not named Duke/UNC/UVa knows they're misleading. For years the best seats in Cassell (saved, obviously, for the biggest donors) were at best sparsely filled. Season ticket purchases is one of those things that can inflate official attendance numbers. It got to be such a problem at times in the Greenberg era that students were waiting in a standby line to be placed in the empty seats that scattered the arena. There needs to be a system in place to hold those high rollers accountable, and if they don't show up to fill their seat on at least a semi-consistent basis, offer the prime real estate to the season ticket holders that would.
Creative In-Game Entertainment
This is what makes basketball a different event than football. In both, there's a lot of dead time between TV timeouts, regular timeouts and halftime. In basketball it's logistically easier to employ more creative ways to fill that time and keep fans engaged. It's vital to make sure the atmosphere inside the arena stays just as lively after the timeout as it was before. As Cuban said above, everyone stands up for a t-shirt. In fact, everyone stands up for almost any sort of fan participation activity as long as it's fun, energetic, and not stale. The problem in Blacksburg is that they've been running the same in-game promotions and halftime shows for as long as I can remember. Don't get me wrong, I love the Delta Dental Smile of the Game as much as the next guy, but what else can we do to keep fans entertained? And yes, the Simon Says guy is always
annoying entertaining, but can't we switch things up? I've heard Cassell loud for a ton of games, but one of the loudest times that I've ever heard it was when a fan sunk a halftime shot. I was in the bathroom, and the floor literally vibrated. It's possible to keep fans involved and the atmosphere live even when the game is not in play. It just takes some creativity.
If Whit Babcock can focus on those five things, I feel like the basketball program will feel new again. The team may have been bad this year, but as we've seen with other teams (Nebraska, anyone?) it only takes one good year to turn the tide of a program's fortunes. It takes real effort, however, to create an in-house atmosphere that can triumph a bad season.