How much does it take to be a true college basketball fan?
Aside from the sheer dedication people from big basketball schools have, traveling to games, wearing the right clothes, and getting tickets to away games can make fan support rather unfriendly to the wallet.
Students at Gonzaga University have to pay to join the men's basketball support group, the Kennel Club, to get some free swag and a place to party at before and after the games. Students also receive free tickets to all home games at most universities, while non-student fans at Kentucky, for example, will pay up to $1,000 a ticket for good seats (the going rate for a home game against Louisville this year). Yikes. Mix in $50 for a hoodie, $20 for a T-shirt, $20 for a hat, and $75 to pay the public intoxication citation and your hot-dog-eating college student is suddenly calling home for a loan from the Bank of Dad.
Apparently devotion knows no price. But if you've got a winning team with great tradition -- and great prospects every March -- what's a little pain and suffering where the bank balance is concerned?
To all those fans whose teams made the tournament: I envy you. To all those fans who have gotten so used to making the tournament they don't get excited if they aren't seeded high enough: Don't even. My school, Loyola University Chicago, never made the tournament. We came close once, losing on a buzzer-beater in the conference tournament finals. It was devastating. I probably would've cried if I hadn't vacated all of the liquid out of my body during the game.
But even with Loyola's lack of success, a few of us were passionate about our basketball team, eventually forming a fan support group, mobilizing the students to get involved, publicizing the team's successes and working hard to build the idea of a good basketball team and good basketball fans within the student body. It looks like that hard work is finally paying off a few years later as Loyola won the inaugural "spirit award" for the Horizon League conference ... kinda like the participation ribbon on Field Day in elementary school.
Some fans take team support to a level far beyond the comprehension of Loyola's "We're sorry you didn't make it to the NCAA Tournament again, here's a ribbon!" award. Basketball is so much more than an event for these fans, it's part of the school's culture. Kids grow up wearing the Tar Heel blue of North Carolina -- also known as Carolina Blue in the Converse All-Star collection. Little boys and girls learn what a Jayhawk is before they know how to tie their shoes. It's because the culture transcends the sport, it overwhelms it, and it becomes part of the bloodstream of the universities and their communities.
Duke University is well known for its fanbase throughout the NCAA. The Cameron Crazies, as they're aptly named, swarm Cameron Indoor with such voracity that it's widely regarded as the toughest college basketball arena in the country to play in. But when you look at the school itself, the true ethos of the university as an academic sanctuary, it's counterintuitive to have such a rabid student section (not to mention such a successful basketball team). Duke enrolls just over 6,000 undergrads total, compared to the 30,000 and 40,000 of many of their rivals, yet they fill their 10,000-seat stadium to capacity with ease. Where are all these people coming from? How does Duke continually sell out games and foster such a rich basketball environment?
It helps having Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the 12-time NCAA Coach of the Year, helming the team for the last two decades. But it's more cultural than that. The Duke team feeds off of the culture of their rivals North Carolina, and vice-versa. Two teams squished into the state of North Carolina have developed a brilliant expose of "positive correlation."
Back to Kentucky fans ... they bleed blue and white, leading the nation in fan attendance at more than 23,000 people per game. For the sake of comparison, the best NBA team averages slightly more than 20,000 fans per game (the struggling Chicago Bulls, surprisingly ... hey guys, Michael Jordan's not there anymore, it's OK to go home and see your kids). The worst, the New Jersey Nets, come in around 13,000 per game. Kentucky fans regularly camp out for days on end, waiting to be one of the 23,000 to get tickets to watch their beloved Wildcats play -- in practice. UK tattoos are a regularity and their frothing fandom knows no bounds, no age limits, and no discrimination. If you're "true blue," you get it.
Fly to the other side of the country and you find the quaint little redneck town of Spokane, Wash., home of the Gonzaga Bulldogs (and not much else except a riveting episode of "COPS" I saw once). When the mustachioed Adam Morrison attended Gonzaga a few years ago and swept white trash America off its fur-lined Crocs, the "Kennel Club," Gonzaga's famed student section, wore fake mustaches to every home game to celebrate their All-American hero.
Camden Finney, 26, a Gonzaga University alum and former Kennel Club member, saw the support group grow and gain national attention while in school, culminating in a visit from ESPN's famed College GameDay show.
"ESPN came to Spokane in February of 2006," Finney said. "Students not only camped to go to the game against Stanford that night, but also to be at the early morning broadcast of GameDay. Given Gonzaga is a smaller school, we were able to draw a couple thousand students for the show. They yelled their hearts out for the full 60 minutes of the show and gave viewers a taste of the intensity they exhibit at each home game."
The student group, now in its 18th year of existence, has grown stronger and stronger as the team followed suit. They do a ridiculous amount of homework on the opposing team, researching GPAs, troubles with the law, etc. (although pointing out another team's off-court issues is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black for the mushroom-eating Zags).
Finney remembers the impact that fans had on games, both in boosting their team and disintegrating the opposition.
"The Kennel Club creates a truly unique place to play at the McCarthey Athletic Center," Finney said. "The students are loud and rowdy, making an amazing atmosphere found in very few places in college basketball. It's an intimidating environment that's fun to be a part of. Gonzaga has educated fans who know college hoops and are known to do research on visiting teams, whether it's a bad quote a player made in a newspaper or, for the more unfortunate players, we've yelled the name of an ex-girlfriend while the player is at the free throw line."
There's no doubt that winning 75% of their games in 18 years helped Gonzaga build a fanbase, but it is the alumni, the culture of the mid-major underdog that keeps winning, that keep the fanbase strong, including ever-present Gonzaga alumni John Stockton who leisurely shows up in the training room and at games to support his alma mater.
The culture was built from people like Stockton's success; now it's sustained by their support.
Seattle-based Erik Larsen is an award-winning former sports editor of the Loyola University Chicago school newspaper, the Phoenix, a former sports writer for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye, and author of the Sports Tzublog. Got a tip? Or a spare ticket to the Final Four? Email him at email@example.com.
March Madness, NCAA fandom can be expensive