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On Sports

Syracuse is national champ at drawing fans

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Rochester Business Journal
March 6, 2015

When Syracuse University officials announced 35 years ago they would be moving home basketball games from the cozy confines of Manley Field House to the cavernous Carrier Dome, I opined strongly against the change of venues. As an SU undergrad, I had attended numerous games at the dusty, old arena known as the Manley Zoo. And, like so many others, I came to love not only the building’s intimacy— you sat so close you could smell what the players had for their pre-game meal—but also the enormous home-court advantage it provided. It was a true basketball pit.

I was hardly the only one to lobby against the switch. In fact, the most vehement opponent was James Arthur Boeheim. The bespectacled man who has gone on to become the second-winningest coach in major college men’s hoops history was so incensed with the proposal that he stormed out of a meeting in which school officials told him they needed to switch basketball addresses in order to sell a few thousand more tickets per game to help fund the university’s other sports programs.

That’s how many more extra ducats they thought they’d be able to sell by staging basketball games in one of the end zones of the Teflon-roofed football stadium. A few thousand.

“Never in a million years,’’ former SU athletics director Jake Crouthamel told me, “did we envision it becoming the spectacle that it became.”

Spectacle is the right word, because over time SU basketball has become as much a part of upstate winters as lake-effect snow and sub-zero wind chills. This past Monday night, 25,338 spectators braved frigid temperatures and snowy roads to say goodbye to departing senior center Rakeem Christmas and watch the Orange men’s final home game of the season against second-ranked Virginia. That crowd ensured that SU would retain its title as the national basketball attendance champions with an average of nearly 24,000 spectators per game, several hundred more than Kentucky’s average draw. It marked the second consecutive year Syracuse has led the nation in attendance and the 14th time overall.

What makes the turnout even more impressive is that it occurred during a winter in which the Orange wouldn’t be participating in the post-season because of a sub-standard record and self-imposed sanctions provoked by a never-ending NCAA investigation into rules violations. I think continuing an upstate sports tradition had something to do with the strong fan support, but I also believe this team’s grit during a time of adversity resonated with people.

It should be noted that none of the current student athletes had anything to do with the violations, which reportedly are from several years ago. I wish the NCAA and its member schools would come up with a fairer system—one in which coaches, athletic directors and the universities themselves are penalized with fines or suspensions.

Although these Orange men will become just the third team in Boeheim’s 39 seasons to finish with fewer than 20 wins, they showed moxie; they played hard every night. A doff of the cap to the current players—and to the fans—for keeping a tradition alive.

Win by losing
Even before the season’s first puck drop, the Buffalo Sabres’ goal for the 2014-15 campaign was as clear as a Windexed piece of Plexiglas: Finish last in order to be able to draft either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

I understand the rationale, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it and what it says about the integrity of the game. The feeling is that by losing, you win. By suffering short-term pain, you’ll experience long-term gain. Being last gives the Sabres a 20 percent lottery chance of drafting McDavid, hailed by many hockey experts as the next Great One. And if they lose out in the lottery, they’re still guaranteed a consolation prize of Eichel, who some believe might wind up being as good a player—if not better—as McDavid. With one of these two phenoms, you’ll have the centerpiece around which you can build a championship team. Or so the pitch goes. 

It appears the vast majority of Sabres fans have bought into the tanking philosophy. They’ve willingly accepted a lost season to land the player they hope can lead them to many prosperous seasons. In order to maintain their last-place status, the Sabres have staged fire sales, trading away veterans in exchange for younger players or draft picks. The players who have taken the ice on most nights have played hard, but the talent chasm between them and their opponents usually has been too wide to traverse.

Management’s effort hasn’t been as noble. The Sabres’ brain trust has done everything except play without a goalie for 60 minutes to ensure a bottom finish.

Tanking has been a growing problem throughout sports. Philadelphia’s NBA team has made an art form of it in recent years. I would love to see sports leagues institute new systems that stop rewarding such mediocrity. Buffalo News sportswriter Mike Harrington has suggested that teams that don’t make the playoffs should still get priority in the draft, but with the squads that just missed the postseason drafting highest. This would be a way of rewarding teams for at least trying. So, for example, if my team had the best record that didn’t make the playoffs, I would draft first, followed by the next team to miss, followed by the next, until we reached the teams that made the playoffs. If this system were currently in place, the Sabres would be drafting in the middle of the pack, rather than first or second.

Again, I understand what Sabres management is trying to do. I just think the current system compromises the game’s integrity and needs to be changed.

Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author, nationally honored columnist, television correspondent and radio talk show host in his 42nd year in journalism.

3/6/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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