February 20, 2008

First in Ivy, Lacking in Attendance

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As of last weekend, the women’s basketball team sits atop the Ivy League standings in sole possession of first. For six years, head coach Dayna Smith has been running up and down the sidelines in Newman Arena. For the past four months, the women of Cornell basketball have been taking the court to represent the University. And assistant coach Dale Parker, after briefly leaving his post with the team, is back with the Red in the women’s locker room.
But where is Newman Nation? In the final game of the 2001-02 season against Harvard, the last game before Smith took over the program, 1,675 students, alumni and townies packed into Newman to watch the Red lose to the Crimson, 77-75, in double overtime. Cornell finished the season 8-6 in the Ivy League, runners-up to Harvard (13-1 Ivy).
Six years later, the Red found itself once again battling with the Crimson for Ivy supremacy, but in Friday’s victory over Harvard (13-9, 6-2 Ivy), Cornell (15-6, 7-1) drew only 582 fans. Despite being just a third of the attendance at Newman compared to the 2002 matchup, it was still the second-largest crowd to support the Red battle the Crimson in Ithaca during Smith’s tenure. The largest crowd came in 2003 when 627 fans came in support of Cornell.
“It was nice to have so many people there on Friday,” Smith said. “There was such a loud student section, some people from the community and some kids that were at a camp. It was nice to have such a loud cheering section in certain parts of the game.”
Since taking over the program, the largest crowd Smith has coached in front of was 3,936 at Ohio State last year. The Red lost, 77-43, to the nation’s No. 8 team. The largest crowd any of the current Red players have played in front of at Newman came in Cornell’s 73-57 win over Columbia to open this year’s Ivy schedule. Attendance was recorded at 974.[img_assist|nid=27995|title=Bringing home the bacon|desc=By scoring the 75th point against Harvard Friday night, freshman guard Allie Fedorwicz won free wings for all fans in attendance.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“Especially at home [having a big crowd] is great because you have all the support and fans on your side, and when you do something good, besides feeling it on the court with your teammates, the crowd feels it and gets loud,” said senior co-captain Gretchen Gregg. “It gives you extra excitement to play with. It benefits the home team so much and it’s just awesome to play in front of.”
But the women haven’t been able to draw nearly the same number of fans to Bartels as the men’s team has. The men lead the Ivy League at 8-0, in search of their first championship since the 1987-88 season. After being upset by Columbia on the road, the women cannot match the men’s winning percentage, but they also are in the driver’s seat en route to an Ivy League title — one that would be the first in Cornell women’s basketball history.
The average attendance at men’s home games is 2,805 compared to 406 at women’s games, which only fills Newman to nine percent of capacity. In an effort to increase fan support at both the men’s and women’s games, Cornell and Wings Over Ithaca have partnered to offer two pounds of free wings to any fans in attendance when the Red score 75 points or more on Friday night home games.
So far, only the women have capitalized. The men had their chance on Feb. 8 when they took on Princeton. Leading 72-61 in the final seconds of the game, Cornell opted to dribble-out the clock, favoring sportsmanship over the appetite of the fans.
“I was announcing the first game when the Wings promotion was in effect — the Princeton game,” said Jacob Mastbaum of Slope Media Group. “I don’t really think it was on the players’ minds. They had the ball with 10 seconds left and could have shot a 3.”
When asked whether he thought Cornell would pop the trey in the final seconds, Mastbaum responded, “No.”
“The crowd was going crazy,” Mastbaum said. “I was calling the game, so I don’t remember exactly what they were saying, but you could tell the crowd was trying to compel the team to go for it. They wanted their wings.”
Unfortunately, the men ended the game three points away from “wingdom”. Win or lose, undefeated or not, the Red’s fans were left with a craving unquenched. A week later, on Feb. 15, Newman Nation received its wish. The women delivered the wings.
“We were aware of [the promotion],” Smith said. “A couple of weeks ago, we were close to 75 and we didn’t get it, so the fans were booing us. So we were absolutely aware of it.”
The promotion seemed to draw some more fans than usual, as the 582 in attendance represented the second-highest turnout of the season. Still, there is room for improvement.
“Um, I’m a vegetarian — so not really,” said freshman Dara Perl when asked if she was at the game for the chance to win free wings.
“I was at the game to see my friend Jackie from Harvard play,” Perl said. “She’s a friend of mine from home. She wasn’t a close friend, but she was a friend.”
Now that the women have surpassed 75 points and earned 1,164 pounds of free wings, perhaps more people will have faith in the team.
“Most people said that 75 points is an unattainable task,” said the game’s announcer, Bob Blanco of the Cornell Athletic Department. “I always felt that these girls could overcome and do something even more important than earning a victory. Get me a free half-pound of wings — while also getting a victory.”
When the Red eventually got out to a 73-49 lead with 4:42 left in the game, the wings were in sight. But when Harvard mounted a 5-0 run over the next minute, the crowd began to get antsy.
“I didn’t feel the urgency, but obviously the crowd was pretty anxious about it,” Smith said. “I turned to my assistant and asked what [the crowd] was chanting, and she said, ‘I think they’re chanting for the wings.’”
“I guess when the fans started chanting, we remembered [the promotion],” Gregg said. “But, that wasn’t really on our minds.”
“We were at 73 points for a minute, and I heard the crowd start to chant, ‘We want wings!’” Blanco said. “We knew that it was possible they wouldn’t score, because it had happened to the men’s team a couple weeks ago. But with the amount of time that was left, we kinda knew they’d get 75 — and then some. It was just a matter of getting over the hump.”
It would take the steady hands of sophomore Allie Fedorowicz to get over that hump. With 3:46 on the clock and the crowd demanding their wings, Fedorowicz put in a layup to give Cornell a 21-point cushion, but more importantly, the fans their wings.
“I didn’t even know about it, actually, until afterwards,” Fedorowicz said. “The crowd went wild when I scored the 75th point, but I didn’t know why. Someone told me afterwards about the promotion … I guess it’s nice that we could win and get the fans wings.”
The Red went on to score 85 points, the most any Cornell team has scored under Smith. The 85-61 victory was only the second win against Harvard for Smith in 11 tries, the last victory coming in 2004. Cornell won that game 66-64 in double overtime with 522 fans in attendance. Had the Wings Over Ithaca promotion been in effect then, those would have been 522 angry, wingless fans. But last Friday the women delivered.
“It was cool to do it with such a big crowd there,” added Gregg. “For them to get free wings — that’s awesome.”
“We very happy for the fans,” added Smith. “Give them a little reward for coming out and supporting us.”
With every Friday night 75-point performance, a Cornell fan gets his wings.