Flashes hope attendance improves during final home stretch


Kent State guard Michael Porrini attempts to dribble closer to the net in a game against Buffalo University at the MAC Center on Tuesday, Feb. 14. The Flashes beat the Bulls 76-71 in a key East Division game. Photo by Monica Maschak.

Nick Shook

Kent State, winner of two-straight Mid-American Conference East Division regular season titles, is in the midst of another race for a conference title. A seven-game win streak has moved the Flashes from near the bottom of the division standings to second place.

The Flashes are in a tie for second place in the division with Buffalo, who they defeated Tuesday at home, and trail Akron by just one game in the standings.

Three of Kent State’s final five regular season games are at home, where the Flashes have been nearly unbeatable since 2003-04 with a 68-7 home record.

The M.A.C. Center has been unfriendly to opponents, due to the large crowds that fill the small arena in support of the Flashes. Kent State has drawn 624 more total fans in 2011-12 than it did in 2010-11, which may have played a role in Kent State’s 10-1 home record this season.

“There’s times during a game where our team may be struggling for whatever reason, and if we hit a big shot, the energy the crowd gives our team helps us defensively,” Flashes’ head coach Rob Senderoff said. “I think sometimes it rattles the other team, it makes it harder for them to execute. There’s a reason, in our league, home teams win about 80 percent of the games. I think the crowd has a lot to do with that.”

“It helped us a lot in that second-half run against Buffalo,” Flashes’ senior forward Justin Greene said. “They got pretty loud for us, and we feed off their energy and intensity that they have.”

“The more people that are in here, the higher the energy and intensity,” Flashes’ junior forward Chris Evans said. “We feed off the crowd, so it definitely helps us out.”

However, the late-season attendance figures are down in comparison to 2010-11. The Flashes are averaging over 500 less fans per game from Jan. 23 to Feb. 14 in 2011-12.

“Early in the season we had great attendance, especially the student section,” Senderoff said. “It seemed like early games, there was a lot of students there and they were phenomenal. For the last couple games in particular the attendance certainly hasn’t been great, and even the student attendance, which has been phenomenal the whole first semester, has sort of dropped off a little bit.”

Kent State’s student section, nicknamed “The Krew,” traditionally fills the stands to cheer on the Flashes. Students accounted for 700 to 1,000 tickets per game early in the 2011-12 season, but that number has fallen to 500 to 600 tickets in the latter part of the season, said deputy athletic director Tom Kleinlein.

Attracting students to the game has been difficult for Kent State’s athletic department this season. Kleinlein has worked with Undergraduate Student Government and marketing interns to draw interest in the team, but hasn’t seen the results he expected.

“[Interns] do everything from plaster posters in the dorm to handing out leaflets,” Kleinlein said. “[Interns] walk through the Hub with [Kent State mascot] Flash every now and then just letting everybody know we have a game.”

Low attendance from the students has the athletic department nearly dumbfounded.

“I don’t know if people have become bored with us winning,” Kleinlein said. “I think our basketball team this year is as exciting as it’s ever been. I know the next two weeks is an important stretch run for us. We need people in the M.A.C. Center.”

The athletic department is open to working with students to increase interest and attendance at both basketball and football games.

“If [students] tell me they want it, that’s obviously something they’re going to come out for,” Kleinlein said. “…The unique thing here that our students don’t realize is that they actually have a voice. They’ll say ‘hey, we want to do this’ and we’ll do those things.”

School spirit is another issue that the athletic department is focusing on improving. Kent State is the second-largest university in the state of Ohio, but is far behind fellow state schools in campus-wide pride.

“That’s an institutional problem that [university president] Dr. Lefton has tried to address with a lot of the incentives that he has put in place since he has been here,” Kleinlein said. “ … Any sort of pride within a university, we can put any program we want into place, but it’s got to be student-driven.”

Marketing interns and athletic department employees can normally be seen at events wearing blue and gold, but an improvement in merchandising appears to be the next step the university is taking.

The university bookstore and sports apparel giant Nike are working together to develop what Kleinlein calls a “concept shop,” in which students would be able to purchase the same gear that they see Kent State athletes wearing on the field and court. He hopes that the creation of a team shop will increase school spirit across campus.

With the nearby University of Akron spending millions of dollars on new facilities and expansion of its campus, Kent State has taken a lesser role when it comes to renovations. The university made improvements to Dix Stadium and added video boards to the M.A.C. Center, but the arena is still below standards set by conference members Toledo and Buffalo. However, Kent State coaches may actually prefer the M.A.C. Center to remain the same.

“Clearly, here, there are some needs for facility improvements,” Kleinlein said. “The complexity of it is if you asked our basketball coaches, they don’t want anything to change. Because when we do have our students here and when the community does show up, it’s one of the loudest environments in the world.”

Although the M.A.C. Center may not reach the highest arena standards, the team that calls it home benefits from fan involvement. If fast-paced play isn’t enough for fans, Senderoff offered more reasons to watch the Flashes in person.

“We have four seniors,” Senderoff said. “Justin Greene, who is a four-year player here, will leave as one of the top 10 to ever put on a [Kent State] uniform. Guys like Mike Porrini, Carlton Guyton and Justin Manns, they won’t be playing after this year here at Kent and they’ve meant a lot to our program. Then you’ve got guys like Chris Evans; some of the stuff he’s done on the floor is ESPN-Top-10-worthy almost every night, and you get a chance to see it in person.”

Evans, a high-flying forward that impresses crowds with his acrobatic dunks, described what he senses when he completes an alley-oop.

“I hear the crowd get really loud,” Evans said. “The dunk, it makes the crowd get loud and then it makes us play harder on defense.”

Kent State has given fans plenty of reasons to attend home games, but if the high quality of play and winning tradition isn’t enough, Saturday will provide another incentive for those that come to the game.

“Antonio Gates, who is going to be in the NFL hall of fame, is the best player to ever play here as a basketball player, certainly during my time here,” Senderoff said. “He’s coming back and will be doing an autograph session beforehand, and it should be an exciting game.”

The Flashes are taking on the College of Charleston in the Sears BracketBuster game. Along with a winning streak, history is on the line Saturday for Kent State.

“We’re going for our 20th win,” Senderoff said. “It would be the 13th time in 14 years that we’ve accomplished that. There’s only about five or six schools that have done that.”

Kent State’s final three home games of the regular season will determine whether the Flashes win their third-consecutive regular season title, a feat that has never been accomplished in the history of the MAC.

“Three more [home games] to go, and we need each one,” Senderoff said. “It certainly would be helpful to have more people there, and the students in particular. I think our kids really feed off their energy. There’s a group that comes to every game, and they’ve been phenomenal. We certainly appreciate it, our kids appreciate it and I know I do, personally. It means a lot to us.”

“It’s going to be a show,” Greene said. “We put on a real good show, we’re an exciting group to watch. Come out and support us on this run to a three-peat.”

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected] or @NickShookDKS