Shane Patterson, a junior communication major, compared Friday night’s men’s basketball game in Alumni Arena to Bowling Green to a “Big-10 atmosphere.”
Junior accounting major Matt Haring, who has attended Bulls games for more than 10 years, didn’t think Alumni Arena could ever get so loud. Haring said when sophomore guard Shannon Evans hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 35, he thought he was “going to die.”
The Bulls’ 77-75 victory over Bowling Green Friday night – that clinched a No. 2 seed and triple-bye in the upcoming Mid-American Conference Tournament – had an announced crowd of 6,607 – the third highest total in Alumni Arena history and the highest since it was renovated more than 10 years ago. Roughly 1,900 of the attendees were students, according to UB Athletics.
“It was an electric atmosphere. The students really came out in a really big way,” said Athletic Director Danny White. “That’s what makes college athletics special. A vibrant student section could create so much energy. That’s why a college sports event is so different than professional sports.”
UB Athletics promoted the game during the week using the Twitter hashtag #Operation6000, which represented the amount of fans that program hoped would attend. Although the hashtag was used for just Friday’s game, UB Athletics has been trying to get fans – and specifically student fans – in Alumni Arena seats all season long.
White and the athletic staff implemented various promotions throughout the basketball season to draw students to the games, including a $10,000 halftime shooting contest, free T-shirts and a free tuition giveaway.
White told The Spectrum in September 2014 the athletic department was looking for ways to increase student attendance at basketball games, after a series of game day promotions led to more than 7,000 students attending the football team’s nationally televised game against Baylor.
Haring compared the setting of Friday’s game to a basketball game at Syracuse University. Syracuse is known for its enthusiastic student section – and sustained success on the national level. But Haring, who has attended both Buffalo and Syracuse games, said he could not tell the difference between the basketball atmospheres Friday night.
“People were standing in line to get into a seat,” Haring said. “At Syracuse, it’s first come first serve. If you come first, you sit in the first row. That’s what it was like [in Alumni Arena] on Friday … One of my friends, who goes to Syracuse, went to the game and we said the intensity was just as equal as the student section at Syracuse.”
Haring, who has been attending games since he was 9 years old, said the promotions have been the reason why.
“It’s a huge difference,” Haring said. “Back in 2004-05 with Turner Battle on the team, there was a lot of crowd support. After that, there was a time when there wasn’t a lot of student support. This year has been sensational, especially from the students. With the team we have and the vibe we can get from the students, it’s beneficial to the program.”
The athletic program implemented a “free tuition giveaway” before conference play began. The promotion offered a semester of free tuition to any UB student who attended a men’s or women’s home game. Each time a student attended a game, they would automatically be entered in the raffle – meaning the more times someone attended, the more likely they were to win the tuition.
The winner of the prize was announced Friday to be junior exercise major Jonathan Mitnik. He said he only attended four games this season, but has been going to Bulls basketball and football games since he was a freshman.
“I actually wasn’t paying attention at the time to what award they were giving out,” Mitnik said. “I heard my name and everyone started yelling around me and pushing me down to the court to claim my prize.”
Mitnik said the tuition promotion was not the reason he attended Friday’s game – the winner had to be present at Friday’s game to be eligible to win – but just to watch as a fan. Mitnik said he was ecstatic about winning the award and said it should be an option for basketball seasons, as well as football seasons.
White said he is considering the free tuition give away for football games this fall.
“It’s a great way to connect the student body with the athletic department and getting people to the game,” Mitnik said. “It’s a great way to connect students to school teams. It’s a great way to give back.”
UB Athletics also had a “blackout” and later a “whiteout” game in which fans were encouraged to wear black and white T-shirts, receptively, to home games. Athletics gave away free black T-shirts for the “blackout” game held on Jan. 30, in which the Bulls defeated Kent State 80-55 in a nationally televised game on ESPNU.
But it was a courtside employee that had everyone talking after that game.
Louis Lipani, an international trade major who works mopping the court during home games, became a trending topic on Twitter after he was nearly run over by junior forward Rodell Wigginton on a surprise fast break. The highlight was featured on ESPN’s Sportcenter.
The athletic department wasted little time to promote the viral sensation and at the next home game on Feb. 10 gave away white free T-shirts that depicted Lipani running off the court and read, “#UBMOPGUY plays better defense than you.”
“Obviously, we’re glad no one got hurt on that play,” White said. “But our marketing staff did a great job of playing off of something that the student body was interested in. I thought it was a pretty funny thing and we took advantage of it.”
White said no single promotion increased attendance at games this season. He said the incentives offered through the promotions helped attendance “by adding to the excitement.”
Patterson said the promotions have changed the landscape of the athletic program. The “electric” crowd encapsulated Patterson, an active member of True Blue, on Friday night.
“It creates publicity,” Patterson said. “You see what White is doing. We’re usually known as Buffalo, but we’re obviously unique. We’re being promoted as a New York school. That’s been getting us on the map. We’re trying to promote this place as the best place in the MAC.”
The Bulls clinched the MAC East for the second straight season and secured a triple-bye in the upcoming MAC Tournament in Cleveland, Ohio. Buffalo will play a yet- to-be-determined opponent on Friday in the MAC semifinals.
Patterson said he is convinced White has been steering the program in the right direction. He noted the hires of men’s basketball head coach Bobby Hurley – a former standout point guard from Duke University, and football head coach Lance Leipold, a six-time national champion from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater.
He said he is excited for the next promotion White and the athletic staff will bring to the program in order to increase student attendance.
“When you bring in big names and take chances, it increases interest,” Patterson said. “At the end of the day, Buffalo is on the up and up.”
White has not released any new promotions for the upcoming football season next fall, but he said he plans to return the Tailgate Concert Series and student tailgates.
He said he hopes to bring the same crowd from Alumni Arena last Friday night to fill the seats of UB Stadium in the fall.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” White said. “We have some things we need to work out … It was very successful based off of our past history. But we’re not satisfied. We want every game’s atmosphere to be like the one on Friday night.”
Jordan Grossman is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org