The University of Louisville’s men’s basketball team is a popular pick for the top ranked team going into this season, favorite for the national championship and voted unanimously as the number one team in the Big East. The team is on the brink of what should be a historic season with the highest expectations of any team of the Pitino era. Fans were able to catch a glimpse of the team this past Saturday at the YUM! Center for the annual red-white game, and one would think the place would be packed like sardines to see the team scrimmage. One would be wrong. While the crowd was respectable, and those who were in attendance were loud and vibrant, it was not exactly a packed house, and as you can see in the picture above, there were several noticeably empty seats. A similar situation occurred last year, and a local recruit who attended that game, Derek Willis, expressed his disappointment in the crowd. A hotly debated Twitter topic amongst fans after the performance was how to improve the event in order to get a packed house and create a more persuasive sales pitch for interested recruits. One common conflict amongst the fans was whether the team should create a “Midnight Madness” event, a common theme amongst college basketball’s elite. There are pros and cons to conducting such an event, and in the end, it may be the best solution to alter the current format a bit. As long as Rick Pitino is the head coach, though, do not expect a full-on Midnight Madness to happen any time soon.
In order to improve this event, the program does not necessarily need to make a full transition to a Midnight Madness event. Early on in Pitino’s coaching days at U of L, he did hold such an event, and it did not exactly live up to what Pitino (or the administration) had hoped for. After that, the coach said, “No more.” Since then, Louisville basketball has not really had any sort of formal start to the season. Midnight Madness events are used primarily as an opening ceremony for the basketball program in order to get fans and recruits excited. They consist of bright lights, loud music, goofy outfits and skits (see Tom Izzo’s Top Gun entrance for reference), and players performing in dunk contests and other shows for fans. It is more of a circus act or glorified high school pep rally then an actual basketball event and is something Pitino considers below Louisville basketball (and thankfully, Pitino is never going to sell out for any one or two recruits). I, for one, agree with him. I think it is pretty ridiculous to see grown men camping out to see such an event just as I think it is pretty ridiculous to see grown men celebrate a 16-17 year old’s commitment the same way grown men celebrate the birth of their child. I loved what I saw on Saturday: a hard fought, no-nonsense scrimmage with Pitino occasionally chiming in on microphone so the crowd could here his words to the team. It was good, quality basketball and truly gave something for fans to look forward to. However, it needs to be better marketed and better organized. The empty seats on Saturday are a testament to that.
So, how does it improve? First of all, the administration should reevaluate the decision to break the red-white game up into three separate games. While it gives fans three different opportunities to see the team, it will not necessarily result in the same fans attending every game. Remember, this is just an intrasquad scrimmage, and one that costs $5-$10 at that. Plus, creating three separate scrimmages gives fans an “option” to choose which game rather than make it one high-demand event. Perhaps fans on Saturday were a little drained after the Pittsburgh football game and thought, “Meh…I’ll just go next week.” Does that make that person a bad fan? No, and especially during football season, it may be hard to get fans to pay $15-$30 to attend the same scrimmage three different times on a Saturday or Sunday. It is also wise to take advantage of the downtown environment and nightlife by having the event in an 7 or 8 pm type of time slot. That way fans can enjoy the game and go out for dinner or drinks afterward.
Regarding the atmosphere of the game itself, I like it the way it is. As I said above, I enjoy seeing good, hard, no-nonsense basketball. I do not want to sit down and watch some song and dance WWE type of event where basketball comes second to entertainment. However, I am not the only fan. There are others out there, several in fact, who do enjoy such an event. It is likely enjoyable for young teenagers and especially recruits. That is the type of atmosphere many want to see. Young fans (college or high school age) will want a reason to get excited, and recruits will want to see a show. A Midnight Madness event will fulfill the desires of both groups. Maybe, the best solution is to keep the format the way it is, but break it down into one primetime event. Keep the scrimmage the way it is, but maybe spice up the pre-game a little and have some sort of dunk contest or related event at halftime. The game itself should be enough, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe even consider making the scrimmage free of charge, as the Spring Game was this past year (which resulted in a great turnout despite omenous weather looming), especially if you are going to expect fans to show up for three games. Finally, arguably the biggest need is to MARKET, MARKET, MARKET the event! How often did anyone here any kind of promotion for the the red-white game on TV, radio, or otherwise? There was not much out there. If people are expected to show up in droves, they not only need to be sold, they need to be constantly reminded.
Of course, in the end, it will still depend on the fans to show up. The format can change and the time can change, but fans will still have to show up. I am not going to sit here and bash everyone who did not go with a “Shame on you” speech. I understand it is still football season, and people out there may have family events, barbeques, or other priorities ahead of going to an intrasquad scrimmage. However, I still would like to see a better showing than Saturday, especially being that it was the first look at the team this season (and trust me, Chane and Montrezl were more than worth the price of the tickets). If I was a recruit at Saturday’s game, I would have come away very impressed with the team and the fans who were there, but still would have been a bit taken back by the empty seats. Hopefully, Sunday at 4 pm there will be a better showing, but to truly make this event more attractive, it will take the efforts of both the fanbase and those who are in charge of putting the events on.