By Mike Litos (@VCULitos)
I couldn't get to the Siegel Center quickly enough, that November afternoon. Even for the surprise warmth of a Richmond November it was a warm day. It could've been snowing for all I cared.
You see, getting to the Siegel Center early was--and still is--an imperative. The run up to a VCU basketball game is the ideal appetizer to the festive meal served at tip off. Soaking in the energy and atmosphere of college basketball is a significant part of the experience. Watching fans file in and players warm-up, chatting hoops and listening to the band, it’s like the smell of a steak on the grill.
But this was different. Bigger, I thought.
We were coming off our first NCAA tournament appearance in eight years, a tantalizing 79-78 loss to Wake Forest. If we won that November day in 2005 we got another shot at Wake. We had Mike Doles, and Nick George and that freshman BA Walker back. This was Game Number One and we all had high hopes.
Yes, this was a special kind of run up. It was one of those days where if Jeff Capel would've allowed it, I'd have been there at 7am with bagels and swept the Siegel Center floor.
I also remember being very disappointed that day. Oh we won the game, an overtime thriller. The detail is a little hazy but I remember Walker having a huge day, and wondering how American—freaking American—could possibly hang with us.
But the clear memory is sharing the experience with a less-than-half-full, voltage-impaired Siegel Center.
So when the press release hit my inbox last week, the one announcing that we were starting a wait list for season tickets, that American game immediately came to mind. We’re a long way from that day.
The numbers don't lie. And they are impressive. Since the 2011 Final Four run:
· - 110% season ticket increase
· - Website traffic up 152%
· - Twitter followers up 423%
· - Facebook "likes" up 312%
· - Traffic and number of visitors at vcuramnation.com has doubled
So there's clearly incredible growth. But it didn't start there, and it’s more than the Final Four run. Bigger. We’ve been on a steadily-increasing trajectory for a decade.
From 2002-2010, season tickets increased by 68 percent. Overall attendance increased by 67%. Annual athletics fund-raising doubled.
Here’s a fun data point: The year after The Dagger we averaged 5,640 folks at The Stu. That represented an increase of roughly 1,600 fans to every home game from 2002. In 2009-10, the year before the Final Four, we averaged 6,000 per home contest. Last year’s sellouts brought 7,622 people per night. The increase: roughly 1,600.
But really, in a sense, the numbers are irrelevant. It isn’t about the data. It’s the feeling of sold out buildings, sold out golf tournaments, sold out end-of-year banquets, and sold out basketball camps. It’s Mike Doles—ironically a calm player and ironically on the last game of 2004-05—blitzing UNCW. It’s the number of VCU t-shirts in my closet. It's also this (video on right), the unduplicatable moments that gives us chills. There is no statistical measurement of passion and pride.
It’s remembering not just American, but the near-empty city bus ride to the Coliseum. It’s remembering an early attempt to establish the Rowdy Rams. I went to an organizational meeting in 1986. I think the guy that was in charge was named Darryl. He was wearing a hoop around his head and did his fool's best to get everyone fired up but it never took off.
And now I love to see this edition of the Rowdy Rams—also sold out. It still gets me, like an index finger to the forehead, when I first walk into The Stu and that sea of yellow shirts hits me. And the Peppas. So doggone good they need no adjectives.
I take special pride when I read that all season tickets have been sold out, that we will likely finish up this season with a consecutive sellout streak around 34 games. I relish in the atmosphere created by the students and the band and the satisfaction that “geez it’s hot in here” is not a complaint but rather a badge of honor. That’s prime cut of steak sizzling away on the grill.
The best part: Ed McLaughlin and Shaka Smart see where we are today as a jumping off point to bigger and better things.
Follow Mike Litos on Twitter (@VCULitos) for VCU Basketball updates all year long