The Collegian
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Get the Spiders more air time

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Paul Woody offered a familiar criticism last Thursday: Not enough people care about the University of Richmond's sports teams.

Woody's column included comments from Saint Joseph's University coach Phil Martelli about the low attendance at last Wednesday's men's basketball game. Woody wrote that "the crowd of 4,312 was embarrassing for a game of this importance."

Ever since I read this criticism, I have been trying to figure out why it made me so upset. After days of thinking about it, I've decided it's because I know it's true, and I wish it weren't. His statements apply to all Richmond sports, but I'm going to focus on men's basketball because that was the inspiration for his column.

Starting at the age of 7, I stayed up past my bedtime to watch college basketball games. I couldn't wait until I got to college and could support my school's team. But never once did I see a University of Richmond basketball game - and I lived in Richmond from the age of 6 until the age of 11.

I think the biggest problem with getting people to attend Richmond games is that its teams simply do not get enough national exposure. I don't know where I could find the stats to back this up, but I would guess that this year's football team had the highest percentage of televised games of any team in school history.

Most people watch college basketball on ESPN or, in March, on CBS. This season, most of Richmond's televised games have been played on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which is broadcast in only seven of the 50 states.

Most students don't get the chance to see Richmond sports before coming here, and there are probably some who still haven't. I have noticed three categories of students at this school: people who don't like sports at all, people who like sports but don't care about Richmond sports and people who include Richmond sports among their favorite sports teams.

In case it isn't obvious, that last category is by far the smallest. I include myself in it, but I have to admit that when it comes to basketball I follow many schools in addition to Richmond.

I blame this on my uncle, though I love him dearly, because he gave me completely unrealistic expectations of what the average college basketball game is like when he took me to the first college game I had ever seen in person.

He got me a floor seat to see the University of Maryland play the University of North Carolina on Feb. 22, 2003. That was the first season the Terrapins were playing in the Comcast Center, and all 17,950 seats had been sold.

Maryland was the reigning national champion back then - the team actually got its rings the day I was there - and as I recall, the stands were full during all 40 minutes of the game, which Maryland won by 40 points. I sat there knowing I wanted that kind of college experience, which is why I applied to three ACC schools.

I love Richmond, and I'm glad I decided to go here. It's probably been the best overall experience I could have gotten out of the schools I applied to, but the one area I've always felt was lacking was school spirit.

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It is, of course, unreasonable for me to expect the same basketball environment here that I had that day. Richmond has never won a men's basketball national championship and neither have most of its opponents.

But I will never forget how much fun I had at the Maryland game, and I often get nostalgic for that day when I watch Richmond play. There were more seats - fewer of them empty - and a lot more noise than during a typical night at the Robins Center.

There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy, and to me, the most obvious one is this: there are almost 40,000 students at Maryland - plus a lot of alumni still living in-state - to fill the 17,950 seats in the Comcast Center, but fewer than 3,000 students at Richmond - and fewer alumni in the area - to fill more than 9,000 seats at the Robins Center.

You'll hear other excuses from Richmond students, many of them valid. On weeknights, we have homework, work and extracurricular activities. I myself have spent the past year following Wednesday night games, such as the one against Saint Joseph's, from The Collegian office.

On the weekends, there are places to socialize other than the Robins Center. The basketball games are usually over before people actually leave to go anywhere, but if you don't make the games a priority, you're going to be more focused on getting ready to go out than on the games.

Some people blame the team's tendency to lose close games, and although I don't think that helps, I think the problem is bigger than that. College games are much more fun when you have people to cheer with, and if more people decide not to go because of losses there are even fewer people to cheer the team to victory. It's a self-perpetuating vicious cycle.

What I think it comes down to is that prospective students rarely know anything about Richmond sports because the Spiders rarely make national headlines. It seemed there were more students in Chattanooga for the national championship than at any home football game during the regular season.

I don't think the teams should have to win national championships to get students to become fans, but I think the process starts with name recognition. Some of last year's seniors told me men's basketball games were well attended during their freshman year, the year after the men's most recent NCAA tournament appearance.

When Richmond teams enter the national spotlight, more sports fans will be interested in coming here. But until then, sports will be a factor for student-athletes - who constitute a significant portion of the student fans at games - and a depressingly small percentage of the rest of the student body.

That's why I encourage you to go to as many games as you can. This year's teams are talented, but their games won't be as fun for them to play and us to watch unless the crowd gets bigger. You may not be a Richmond fan now, but give them a chance to show you why you should be.

Contact sports editor Barrett Neale at barrett.neale@richmond.edu

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