Friday, December 10, 2010

suggestion box

UVA finds itself in a catch-22 with its revenue sports. People won't pack the seats until the teams start winning more, but half-empty stadiums are a real ball-and-chain on the teams' efforts to win. We the fans can't put wins into the win column, but we can do something about filling the seats. But it's too easy to tell people they need to get their butts in gear and not so easy to get past all the obstacles to it. Money, time, convenience, and any number of other things in peoples' lives that also demand those things from fans. So until the NCAA Tournaments and bowl games start rolling our way in record numbers, the UVA athletic department needs to step up and give fans a reason to support a team that might win, rather than one that does.

It's not for lack of trying, though. They've had mixed results. The football scrimmage at ODU was a thing of genius, as was the Building of a Program show. Given those things plus the coaching change that people demanded, no doubt there's a handful of people who we have good reason to be pissed at - for demanding this stuff as a condition of their presence at games and then still not showing up. Other ideas from the department: not so much. The white-out? Too recycled. "Sabre", the horse mascot? Poor guy was doomed from the start. (Our VT blog friends had a field day with "Snuggles the Wahorse," which, actually, is way too hilarious a name to be mad at them for.)

So what should the school do to gin up more fan support? Glad you asked:

1) Bring back Seal.

One of the lesser known pieces of Wahoo lore is that, back in the day, UVA had a canine mascot. Two, actually, both friendly mutts. The first was Beta, who shared a namesake fraternity with Beta Bridge. The second, from the '40s and '50s, was Seal. Both were beloved enough by the University community that their graves can be found in the University Cemetery.

Beta and Seal were essentially strays that were adopted by the community at large, but both were brought to the sidelines of football games home and away. There's a real genuine-ness to them. For the AD to find a black mutt somewhere and declare it a new mascot would feel a bit contrived as compared to the authenticity of the Beta and Seal stories, but then, aren't most mascots? For whatever reason, the school has made several attempts to foist another mascot on us: The Hoo, Li'l Hoo (the inflatable thing), and most recently Snuggles the Wahorse (I can't help myself.) The horse was panned as childish, but then, mascots aren't exactly out there to fire up the grown-ups. So to bring back a dog would hardly be less contrived than mimicking other schools with inflatable mascots whose one party trick is to turn upside down and bounce around on his head.

The care and feeding of the new Seal would be easy; simply create a new student organization in the fine tradition of student governance and let them run the show. It's a tried-and-true model - even Texas's famed Bevo is under the watchful eye of students. So is the Ramblin' Wreck at GT, and that's a priceless and nigh-irreplaceable old car. You want a mascot that connects with kids and families, there's nothing better for that than a friendly pooch who can visit tailgaters, attend functions, and generally go where Cavman on his horse can't. It's the best way to put an end to the department's quest for another mascot and it's the perfect way to connect with a piece of history.

Lastly, why Seal and not Beta? Seal has by far the better story:

Seal's claim to fame came in 1949 during halftime of UVa-Penn football game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. Wearing a blue blanket embossed with a large orange "V," Seal walked from the 50-yard line to the home team's sideline, where the University of Pennsylvania cheerleaders had placed their megaphones. The Cavalier Daily described what happened next: "Slowly he walked from midfield to the Quaker side. Indifferently he inspected their cheerleading appurtenances. Eighty thousand people watched with bated breath. Coolly, insolently, Seal lifted a leg -- the rest is history." Virginia went on to win its seventh straight game of the season, 26-14, and Seal later came to be known as Caninus Megaphonus Pennsylvanus.
Introduce this stuff on the video board and you can't go wrong. Having Cavman call his trusty sidekick Seal to piss on a turtle that's terrorizing the Homer statue is a foolproof way to fire up a crowd.

2) Better cross-pollination.

This year's spring football game was held on April 10. Fine - except the lacrosse team was out of town and the baseball team was playing a game at roughly the same time, and people had to divide their attention. We have phenomenal teams in sports just below the revenue level - showcase them! The following weekend had a home baseball series against VT and a home lacrosse game against Duke. Why would you not want the spring football game to be on the same day? Start it off with a 12:00 football game in whatever format the coaches want, play the baseball game at 4:00, and finish up under the lights at Klockner. Sell ticket packages at discounts, and offer packages to all three or two of your choice. What diehard Hoo wouldn't want to take in an amazing smorgasbord like this? (Especially when they can meet Seal?) At the very least, they should make every attempt to schedule lacrosse and baseball games, which typically play to full houses, so that a) people can attend both and b) leaving and entering the parking lots aren't a total nightmare for people who don't.

It doesn't have to be just in the spring, either. Why not offer discount vouchers to football games to people who go to a soccer game? Discounts on basketball to people who attend a swim meet? There's a lot of creativity to be done here. But the bottom line is this: the school is making a concerted effort for excellence in every sport. A comprehensive approach to building a quality program as a whole, rather than funneling everything toward football and having other sports only because you're required to, is wholly admirable and should be applauded. Why would you not market this?

3) Ball in U-Hall.

Sometimes you just can't help the empty seats. Playing USC-Upstart on a Monday night, it's no surprise the JPJA is half full for that one. But those games are - well, not "necessary evils", but they're necessary and not going away, either. But you probably couldn't even give away enough tickets to fill the JPJA for that one.

So, once a year, have a "retro night," and for the ultimate retro atmosphere, play the game in cozy University Hall. Pick a team to throw back to, and wear their uniforms, play music from the time, honor the players of that team, all that. The official crowd of 7,751 for the Upstart game wouldn't even fill U-Hall, but Retro Night would.

This would take some monetary investment to get U-Hall ready for basketball again. The floor would probably need to be replaced, among other things. Fire marshal inspections and the like, to ensure the building can still handle the crowds. But the positive press (not to mention the recruiting opportunities) would be worth it.

4) Neutral site basketball games.

OK, for the record, I hate neutral site football games, unless they have the word "Bowl" in the title. College football should be played on college campuses. I hate the idea of taking a home game away from the student body, for whose sake (at least in part) the game really ought to be played.

I'll make an exception in basketball. Why? Because a very large portion of the schedule is played when the students are all home for break. How do you get an ACC game against Georgia Tech to attract only 8,294 (last year's official attendance)? Play it during winter break. This can't be helped, and I don't like the idea of giving up a home ACC game to play on a neutral court somewhere. But look at the upcoming homestand. Seven games which will be played largely without the benefit of a full student section. So taking one of them on the road couldn't hurt in this regard.

There are lots of places in the Commonwealth and the DC area where UVA could host a game. One year, go to the Richmond Coliseum (just make sure they didn't play a hockey game that afternoon.) Next, go to the 757 and play at Scope or the Hampton Coliseum. Or play in DC at the Verizon Center. They could fill or almost fill most of these places, and it'd be a good way to give fans who live in these cities a convenient chance to see a basketball game that they don't have to drive two, three hours for. Go out and be visible around the state.

5) Basketball bus service.

Believe me, I know: the walk from Old Dorms and New Dorms to the arena is a pain in the butt. Especially on cold Tuesday evenings in February. The bus is no better - as someone who used to park his car right about where the JPJA colonnades now sit, I can vouch for the fact that the buses that go to the North Grounds take way too much time.

In order to get students out of their hidey-holes and into the arena, especially for the crap early-season games, it shouldn't be that hard to set up a special basketball route for the University Transit buses. Drive in a loop from Old Dorms to New Dorms to Gooch/Dillard to a pair of JPA stops (one for the off-grounds housing and one for Bice) to a 14th St./Rugby Road stop and then to the arena (sorry, Lambeth students, but you have no distance excuses) and back to Old Dorms, and it'd be five to ten quick minutes to and from the game, instead of a 20-minute hoof in the cold.

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Pretty much all of these ideas cost money, and present logistical issues too. But I wouldn't suggest them if they didn't seem worth it. The larger point is, the department needs to be creative in their attempts to bring fans to the games. They've shown they can do it with things like the Building of a Program show, but much of what they've done is to put UVA logos on recycled ideas. Heck, the uniforms were even referred to as "Oregon of the East" before they came out. Even Building of a Program is a kind of a re-do of the Hard Knocks series, except it'd never been done in college so bonus points for that. Time to do some things that either nobody's thought of before, or that maybe have been thought of but that UVA can do better, rather than a cheap knockoff of. The ODU scrimmage was a great step in that direction and should be a yearly thing. But it doesn't have to be the only thing.

4 comments:

TimNyc said...

These are great suggestions, particularly Seal and hosting a couple of games in U-Hall. That place is loud and great when full

Anonymous said...

Hmmm I'm not that big of a fan of the U-Hall idea. I do however like the neutral court idea in the Verizon Center against Maryland or Virginia Tech or even Duke. I think this would be a sell out size crowd and very convenient. 50% of UVA's alumni reside in the DC metropolitan area after all.

Also I do like the "Seal" idea. My grandfather is a '52 alumnus of the Comm School has told me stories about Seal ever since I was a little one.

Anonymous said...

Your idea about a bus route for basketball games is much needed. Each game I wonder "where are all the students.....and what's more important than being here cheering on your team". Seriously, don't they know that you're only a student once; with all the perks and responsibilities? The student section is so weak.

Karl said...

All good suggestions. I especially like the idea of playing in Verizon. I remember one of the Gillen teams playing Georgetown there and Virginia owned the building!

On Seal/Beta: Not saying this would not work, but the athletic department did try to bring back a dog in the mid-late 80's. As I recall it was named "Gristle" which was the name of one of Mr. Jefferson's favorite dogs. I seem to recall some controvery in which the fraternity responsible for his care was not very diligent and he was found loose a few times or something like that