Winning Basketball Helps Fill Area Gyms

No. 17 Georgetown averages almost 9,000 fans a game at MCI Center, 1,100 more than last year.
No. 17 Georgetown averages almost 9,000 fans a game at MCI Center, 1,100 more than last year. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006

The phones inside the Georgetown ticket office started ringing the Monday following the Hoyas' thrilling upset of undefeated Duke. They've rarely stopped in the two weeks since.

"Everyone was all of a sudden interested," said Kim Frank, the director of marketing and ticket operations for the Georgetown athletic department. "Everything's been nonstop since."

In this crowded urban market, men's college basketball teams compete for fans not only against each other, but against the Wizards and Capitals, and even a vibrant high school basketball scene. But nothing draws fans like success, as the 17th-ranked Hoyas -- along with No. 10 George Washington and George Mason -- are finding out this season. All three teams are enjoying success on the court, and that is being reflected in the stands.

"No question there are many options," said Bob Zurfluh, an assistant athletic director (marketing and promotions) at George Washington. "Your thirst for basketball can be resolved in a lot of different ways."

In its fourth season at Comcast Center, Maryland continues to set the standard in the area, attendance-wise, but the Terps are far from alone in their popularity. Consider last Saturday: Georgetown played at noon, and George Washington, George Mason and American all tipped off at 2 p.m. Georgetown drew 12,016 fans, its second-largest crowd of the season, to MCI Center. George Washington (sellout of 5,000), George Mason (6,627) and American (1,863) each played before their biggest crowds of the season. And all four home teams won.

"That just goes to show you that this is a very strong college basketball, or basketball, market," Zurfluh said. "But with all these programs -- pro, college, high school -- you really need that extra ink to get on people's radar screens. There's so much going on in this area, it's difficult to separate yourself unless you do have that exposure."

The Colonials, who have the area's best record (17-1) and highest ranking (10th), certainly don't suffer from a lack of exposure. But it's only been in the last three weeks that attendance at Smith Center has picked up. The Colonials are averaging 4,200 fans over the past three games, nearly 1,500 more than they were during the first seven games of the season.

Attendance lagged during the Colonials' nonconference schedule -- which featured opponents such as Kennesaw State and Florida International -- and the school's winter break. GW expects to draw anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000 students per game, which means that when the students aren't on campus, attendance suffers.

"We need to do more marketing during the times when the students are on holiday," Zurfluh said. Now that the students are back, Zurfluh expects Smith Center to be close to capacity for the rest of the season.

George Mason (16-5) entered the weekend tied for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association and is making a case for an at-large NCAA tournament berth, but the Patriots labor in the shadows of their nationally-ranked neighbors.

"That does create a bit of a challenge," said Andy Ruge, an associate athletic director of marketing and external affairs at George Mason. "But just think about how many people watch college basketball in this area -- that's just awesome. When you put on a good product, people are going to come. I think that's why we did so well [last Saturday]. We're not ranked in the top 25, but people heard we're a good team."

The Patriots are averaging 600 more fans than they were at this point a year ago, and they still have some of their biggest draws -- a homecoming game against Towson and a game against James Madison -- left on their schedule. The athletic department has set an attendance goal of 5,000 fans per game, which would place it among the top 100 schools nationally.

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