March 2, 2006

Ticket Charge a Big Mistake

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How many of you would pay $3 to watch a Cornell basketball game? How about for a men’s lacrosse game? A wrestling meet?

You wouldn’t. Admittedly, there are many financial pressures for every student, but Cornell students are among the stingiest people in the world – second to George Costanza.

So what do I make of the current proposal of having students pay for sports like men’s basketball, men’s lacrosse, wrestling, and women’s volleyball? It’s cancerous to all of those programs.

I’m not planning to delve into the childish, “he said, she said,” diatribe between the Student Assembly and Cornell Athletics because it’s nauseating to say the least. The larger issue is what would happen to the affected athletic programs if students were forced to pay to see games.

According to an article last week by my esteemed colleague, Sun Assistant Sports Editor Olivia Dwyer, some individuals such as men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue welcome the charging of admission.

“The one thing I like about charging is that I think the student then feels a responsibility to go to the games. It’s something that you put in an investment that then you want to follow up,” he said.

Donahue, a former assistant coach at Penn, is correct in one sense in that students should feel responsibility in coming to games. But, he is getting ahead of himself here.

As much as the men’s basketball team has improved since he came to East Hill, and Donahue deserves all the credit in the world for that, he has not built a marketable, winning product that would entice fans to come to games. In his thought process, he has put the cart before the horse.

The Red finished second in the Ivies last year and will hopefully end this season in the top-half of the league. But unlike at Penn, where head coach Fran Dunphy has helped foster a winning tradition of going to the NCAA championship tournament – thereby filling up the Palestra for most of the Quakers’ games – Cornell has not won the Ivy League title since 1988 and has boasted losing records in seven straight years before the last season.

This is where the main problem lies – tradition. Besides the fact that we are very good nationally, the men’s hockey team always has 3,836 people in the stands because we are expected to win, whether we’re playing Harvard, Minnesota or the Detroit Red Wings. Our success in the rink has bred popularity in the stands, making men’s hockey stand alone as the top sport at Cornell. When you have a program that has not been at the top, it is hard to justify to students why they should be charged to go to a game.

In Dwyer’s article, even men’s basketball’s senior tri-captain Lenny Collins admitted his concern.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the loyal fan base that hockey does, where they sell out every year. I think it might hurt us in the future,” he said.

Basketball might not suffer as much as other less-mainstream sports like volleyball. Head coach Deitre Collins, during her two-year tenure, has already helped her team win two Ivy League titles. Because of this, interest for volleyball matches subsequently increased. However, earning its first NCAA berth in 12 years is just the first step for Collins and her program, which like men’s basketball, has not gained the notoriety or winning tradition which would be needed to sustain a sport that has students pay for admittance.

The best-marketed sport other than hockey is undoubtedly wrestling, which is extremely surprising since it is definitely not considered a mainstream sport in America. Much of this has to do with the efforts of head coach Rob Koll and his assistants, who have worked tirelessly – getting in touch with alumni for funds and support, creating a student fan group called the “Unbearables,” handing out free T-shirts and raffling off a flat screen television. Koll and his staff must do this because, although Cornell athletics does have a marketing department, it is logistically difficult to realistically promote the 34 varsity sports with the Athletic Department’s limited budget.

One way the wrestling staff has done this is through reaching out to the community and surrounding areas, trying to get consistent support and funding through the selling of season tickets, realizing that students are the hardest demographic to attract. They are lazy, unpredictable and turn over every four years.

Last January, 4,425 people – a record crowd in Newman Arena – came to watch not basketball, but Cornell wrestling face off against Lehigh. With a quality opponent in the venue, the promotion and success that Cornell – last year’s fourth-place national tournament finishers – had and the work of the Red coaching staff, the Lehigh match was a huge hit. This was not any ordinary meet. It became a real event with a combination of a strong adversary, free T-shirts and other giveaways, wrestling clinics and constant promotion surrounding the actual athletic competition.

Cornell men’s hockey has developed so much now that every time the Red faces off against Clarkson, Princeton or even the lowly U.S. Under-17 team, it also constitutes a real event. The Lynah Faithful not only look forward to winning, but also, hanging out with friends, throwing copies of The Sun onto the ice and berating the other team’s goaltender for letting in another goal.

Homecoming is also a real event, just because it’s, well, homecoming. There’s the tailgating – another excuse to party on a Saturday morning – and of course, the football game.

But in general, sports like men’s basketball, volleyball, football and men’s lacrosse are not like that. And that’s why, building a winning tradition is so important. Each head coach and their respective staffs have already been doing this – football head coach Jim Knowles ’87 has started to turn others’ heads about his team and men’s lacrosse head coach Jeff Tambroni has brought his team to two consecutive NCAA quarterfinals, to give a couple of examples.

It is true that most Cornellians do not even attend a Cornell basketball game, let alone a hockey game. So why should coaches, athletes and administrators care if students go to games?

The answer, on one level, is the apparent home field/court/mat advantage. Nothing is more discouraging for athletes than looking up into the stands and only seeing their parents and some random, unenthusiastic townspeople fill up empty seats. I’m sure those men’s basketball players who were here two years ago when NCAA finalist Georgia Tech came to Ithaca were energized by the sold-out crowd and proud to say on that day that, “this is our house.”

There is no doubt that charging students for admission to certain sports will punish loyal fans – those who come out and paint their bodies, wear ridiculous wigs and cheer their lungs out for sports other than hockey. Attending athletic events is one of the last non-alcoholic, free events on campus and charging attendance will make these sports an afterthought in our daily lives.

It is sad that this issue is coming out now. Students are starting to wake up to these facts, that our teams are good and ready to win. Some are willing to give them a chance. But paying to go see them?

Dust and silence would slowly settle on the bleachers.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brian will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao