The Collegian
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Missing: Spiders Fans

On any given night, the Robins Center appears to be only half-full, a fact not lost to the visiting coaches.

"I would suggest to the people and the students here that they back this team," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said after his team beat the University of Richmond Spiders men's basketball team last Wednesday night. "I thought it would be a much more hostile environment than it was.

"I told my team to expect juice and energy. It didn't really come. It stuns me. They have a terrific team to watch. They have a great style. They have good people on their team. They're coming off a national championship in football. I don't know what the students here would want. I'm not calling anybody out, but I'm saying it the way it is."

That comment, made after the Jan. 28 St. Joe's victory at the Robins Center, and an article written by Paul Woody appearing in the Richmond-Times Dispatch the next day, have sparked discussion on campus about student support for Spider athletics.

The Robins Center has a capacity of 9,071, often making the crowd size appear small. For the first 10 home games of the season, the men's team drew an average crowd of 4,736, leaving the Robins Center just more than half full.

That average ranks the Spiders as ninth in the 14-team Atlantic 10 Conference in terms of attendance per home game.

Still, there has been a resurgence in attendance this year. The 4,736 average this year is up from 3,991 last year.

When Richmond coach Chris Mooney was first hired in 2005, he brought to Richmond the Princeton Offense, which relies heavily on passing and is not an a system that produces high-scoring games.

"When Coach Mooney first came to UR, his version of the 'Princeton Offense' was ... slow, methodical, and sometimes painful to watch," said Paul Porterfield, head of the Media Resource Center in an e-mail. "In the past two years as the players have become more talented and experienced, the offense has been run at a much faster pace and [is] quite exciting to watch."

"I think it's obvious there's been an increase in football attendance and a decrease at basketball games [during the past four years]," senior Brian Bower said in an e-mail. "[It is] disappointing, but I think it reflects a change in the culture of the school."

Football attendance has increased every year since 2004 with the exception of the 2007 season. During that time, basketball attendance has dropped each year, not considering this year's game attendance.

As the men's basketball team has been winning fewer games, attendance has declined, statistic shows. From the 2000-01 season to the 2003-04 season, the team averaged just under 20 wins per season and had one trip in 2004 to the NCAA Tournament. They drew an average of 5,459 people to the games during those four seasons.

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From the 2004-05 season to the 2007-08 season, the team has averaged only 13 wins. That has reduced average attendance during those four seasons to 4,485 -- about 1,000 fewer fans than when the team had a winning record.

"It does appear that if we lose a game, fewer people come the next time," said Jim Miller, Richmond's director of athletics.

But winning games and bringing a crowd to the Robins Center hasn't always been an issue for the Spiders. John Beilein, the current head coach at the University of Michigan, led the Spiders to a record of 100-53 between 1997-2002. The team had a winning record in all five seasons. It also made the 1998 NCAA tournament as a No. 14 seed and defeated No. 3 seed University of South Carolina in the first round. Mooney's record since he began coaching at Richmond has been 48-65.

"They're quick to be critical," Miller said. "There's 31 games. College basketball's almost like baseball or the [National Basketball Association]. People should be coming to the game just to enjoy coming to the game and to participate.

"There's very few opportunities for a group of students to get involved in that level of competition. I know they're not out on the court playing, but you can get involved and make it an interesting couple [of] nights during your week to come out and get involved."

A lack of student involvement at the games has also made the Robins Center less of an intimidating place for opponents.

"My big concern and disappointment is their lack of involvement," Miller said. "It's not in any way intended to criticize all the students that are there, but when for several years they asked to put the stands back on the floor, put the students back on the floor. We put stands down there [this year]. You can be as close to the game as anywhere in America and probably a third of those seats are filled with students."

At places where fans are really into the game, they come to a game to help the team win. They don't come there just to be entertained. It's more like our fans are coming to a play or a movie. They just go and watch, and they like it better when we win, but they're not involved and that's not just a student issue, that's across the board."

The men's team is not alone in receiving poor student support. The women's basketball team -- currently 16-6 and 4-3 in the A-10 -- is drawing only an average of 661 fans a game.

"We always appreciate the student and community support we get at our game, and like every school, want as many fans at the game as possible to give us a home-court advantage," Richmond women's basketball coach Michael Shafer said in a statement.

Inevitably, the small size of the student section relates to the small size of the school. According to Miller, an average of 337 students go to each men's game. That's about 12 percent of the student body.

"If you had 25,000 students, you'd be having three [thousand] or 4,000 people at a game," he said. "So percentage-wise it's very good."

While the percentage may be good, the lack of growth during the past few years has been "frustrating for a couple of reasons," Miller said.

"One, we do more for our students than any other college in America," he said. "The preyground, the food, gift, prizes, giveaways. We do more for students than anybody, but that hasn't moved the needle."

The small crowd size at men's basketball games negatively affects the team. With a larger student section, there is more of a home-court advantage for the Spiders.

"A home-court advantage is a huge factor in college basketball," Mooney said. "Of all the sports, a home-court advantage probably affects college basketball the most because the atmosphere is so intimate, and people are so close and can feel the energy from the game."

Brower said the students did not deserve the full front of the blame for the weak support.

"I think if you look at the culture of our school, its size, its academic rigor, etc.," he said, "I think you could argue that UR is just a different animal than a lot of other schools in [Division-I athletics].

"Obviously it'd be great if there was greater and more active participation from the students, but I think the average UR student just has different priorities. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but different."

The current quality of opponents also hurts the attendance figures, some say. The Spiders can draw a large crowd when a game is played against major opponent, but often those teams aren't in the A-10.

Wake Forest University, ranked in the top 10 nationally, came to the Robins Center on Dec. 19. Even though students were on semester break, 6,635 people attended that game.

"What big rivalry games are there?" a student who attends most of the games said. "Ask the average student who they would consider our big rival in basketball, and I think the only answer you might get is VCU. Excitement dies easily when there are a few games to get overly excited about."

The Black and Blue Classic, an annual game against VCU, was held on Dec. 14 at the Robins Center and brought a crowd of 7,182 -- the largest home basketball game attendance so far.

While the lack of attendance is a cause of concern, the fact that it has become a controversy both on and off campus is an encouraging sign to some.

"In a time of recession, war and numerous other problems, UR students are criticized for not going to basketball games?" the student supporter said. "In the long run, if that's what we get criticized for, then I think we're doing pretty well."

Collegian staff writer Barrett Neale contributed reporting for this story.

Contact staff writer Andrew Prezioso at andrew.prezioso@richmond.edu

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