Part of what makes places like Seattle University’s Connolly Center perfect for women’s college basketball is the proximity of the fans — and the band — to the action on the court, which “creates an intimate and intimidating environment”. (Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com)
As I sat down at Seattle University’s women’s basketball exhibition opener vs. Northwest University last Tuesday, Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans commented that it had been a while since she had been to a game in such a small gym and tweeted:
At final stop of day–SeattleU’s exhibition opener vs. Northwest University. I take back KeyArena statement. Connolly perfect setting
After attending two games at Seattle University’s Connolly Center and two games at the University of Washington’s Bank of America Arena for women’s basketball games, the elements of Connolly that make it perfect for women’s basketball are becoming more and more clear.
As an alumnus of a Division I university with an undergraduate enrollment a bit smaller than Seattle University, I have to agree with Evans and confess a nostalgic bias toward Seattle University basketball, particularly for women’s basketball.
That’s not a knock on the University of Washington – the Bank of America Arena is a great place to watch basketball. However, it’s hard to avoid the simple fact that women’s college basketball simply does not draw big crowds (yet). We can debate about why that is or how that might change, but that’s the way things are right now.
In a larger arena, not only is the sight of thousands of empty seats hard on the eyes, but what little noise is made by a crowd can easily get lost in a cavernous arena. If the home crowd is deflated by the opponent – as UW fans were last Thursday when Seattle Pacific University jumped out to a 9-4 lead – a 10,000 seat arena can quickly feel eerie — as described by UW Daily writer Taylor Soper.
Conversely, in a place like North Court in the Connolly Center, a few hundred committed fans sitting in the bleachers right on top of the action not only feel like a more significant part of the game, but even an exhibition game against a Division II opponent most of us have never heard of actually feels exciting.
North Court is one of two gyms in the student recreation center that seats about 1,050 fans for basketball and volleyball, which “creates an intimate and intimidating environment to watch the Redhawks’ home games”, according to the SU website. Certainly the proximity of the fans to the court makes for a special basketball experience.
However, intimacy is not just created by bringing 1,050 people together in close quarters to share a basketball game with a 6 – 8 member band alongside fans in the bleachers that occasionally plays La Bamba and We Will Rock You. Even if a few hundred fans show up and are committed to cheering for their team, that small amount of energy takes on a significance that gets drowned out in the space of a larger venue. The nostalgia is brought on by the very nature of any major event on a small campus like Seattle University.
Institutional pride and engagement
In my undergraduate experience, I was comfortable with the court itself because it was the same place I came to play intramural or pick-up ball on campus. Occasionally, members of either the men’s or women’s team would show up and I would have the opportunity to play a few games with them. The level of familiarity with the team itself – people who I lived with, ate with and played with – just added a level of intimacy to the game that is difficult to recreate at a larger school.
In the small venue, we sincerely believed – and would often discuss – that every one of our sophomoric chants, cheers, and jeers had some lasting effect on the player’s psyche that would influence the outcome of the game. However, when we cheered it was for actual people that we knew, not an embodied collective of statistics. I never even recall critiquing players for their shortcomings, not only because they would take me out on the court and crush me, but also because they were friends sincerely invested in being successful at what they did.
Part of the argument for transitioning to Division I according to Seattle U’s original statement of interest in 2006 was, “the opportunity for “enhanced institutional pride and engagement, as well as institutional visibility.” For me, pride and engagement as an undergrad at a school that rarely had any legitimate hope of making the tournament, simply meant the opportunity to watch the folks I knew compete for something.
However, coming to the game was just one more means of hanging out with my crew of friends. I had a friend playing in the band, two friends were cheerleaders, a few friend were working a facilities detail, and my roommate and I eventually got an opportunity to broadcast a few road games for the team, including the conference tournament. There was a feeling of connectedness with almost everything going on in the arena. It was a sense of community built around this basketball event.
Community building and “playfulness” make sports great
The community building capacity of sports is one of the thing that makes being a sports fan great. It was Reason #10 in writer Anna Clark’s excellent series Top Ten Reasons Why This Feminist is a Sports Fan.
Funny for an activity that is grounded in competition, but it’s true. Cities cohere around their sports teams. You see this in the language: “We won on Sunday,” or “We have to find a new second-basemen for next season.” That “we” speaks of collective self-identification … and it is something special and rare.
On a small campus, while winning is great, it’s also great to have something to “cohere around”. Would I like people to cohere around a collective interest in the education and the development of our collective intellectual capacity? Of course. But there’s something special about that collective identification around anything that I find valuable to experience.