‘Cowbell Crew’ looks to up attendance at athletic events

Jackie Valley

Basketball nets fewer fans than early 2000s

They wore hats, yellow sunglasses and blue- and gold-striped socks and stood directly behind the basket closest to the Kent State men’s basketball bench.

It was still 30 minutes before the tipoff against Ohio University Wednesday night, but that didn’t deter this yellow-clad student group from harassing the Bobcat players with loud “K-S-U” chants during warm-ups.

They’re members of the Cowbell Crew, an unofficial student group trying to bolster student support at Kent State sporting events.

“We consistently get shown up by the Akron student section when they come here,” said the group’s founder Scott Burmeister, a junior business administration major. “We have no answer to what they do.”

The Cowbell Crew — named after the loud instruments the group used before catching grief from referees — formed accidentally, Burmeister said. He and friends decided on a whim to attend a volleyball game one Friday night last semester.

At first, they just sat and observed.

“We were like, ‘We should take this upon ourselves to start cheering,’” Burmeister said. “They lost, but we thought we had a little impact.”

After that, the group started attending more volleyball games and eventually teamed up with the Athletic Department to coordinate a tailgate party before a volleyball game. The Athletic Department paid for the group’s characteristic yellow T-shirts that say “more cowbell.”

“We just grew,” Burmeister said. “We did four or five major volleyball games, and the girls loved us. We got to know them.”

Pete Mahoney, associate athletic director for external relations, said the Athletic Department’s goal is to be connected with the student body — one reason why he has pitched in to help efforts like the Cowbell Crew.

“When you see them at volleyball games, that does a lot,” he said. “It’s a great feeling for the student athlete.”

Compared to the other 11 universities in the Mid-American Conference, Mahoney said Kent State attracts decent crowds to men’s basketball games. Kent State currently ranks fourth in attendance at men’s basketball, drawing on average 3,272 people to home games in the 6,427-seat M.A.C. Center.

“We’ve had a couple games here where we expected a bigger attendance,” he said. “And the snow hurt. But when we have students come out, we have large crowds.”

Ohio University leads the MAC right now in men’s basketball attendance, with Toledo and Ball State coming in at second and third, respectively. Ohio attracts 4,851 people on average to home games.

Since the 2005-06 season, attendance at Kent State men’s basketball games has hovered in the 3,000 range. But in the early 2000s, men’s basketball drew on average 4,700-plus people to the M.A.C. Center, said Todd Vatter, assistant director of Athletic Communications.

“It’s been down, but it’s been down across the whole league,” men’s basketball coach Geno Ford said. “And I think that’s more economy-based than anything else.”

Kerrie James, director of basketball operations for the women’s team, also has noticed a slight decline in game attendance since the early 2000s.

“It’s been steadily going down since I played here,” said the former point guard and shooting guard for the women’s team. She played for Kent State between 2003 and 2007.

So far this season, Kent State women’s basketball ranks eighth for attendance in the MAC, drawing 514 on average to home games.

Even so, James said the women’s team doesn’t dwell on attendance figures.

“They’re here to play basketball whether there’s people in the stands or not,” she said. “Do they want more people? Obviously.”

Paul Helgren, associate athletic director for media relations at Toledo, said the Rockets’ Athletic Department tries to capitalize on season-ticket sales to offset any attendance dips caused by losing teams, bad weather or lackluster student participation.

Helgren said Toledo, which ranks high in basketball attendance for the MAC, struggles with student turnout like other schools — a trend within the last 20 years he attributes to technology.

“In that 20 years, what’s happened?” he said. “Well, ESPN has happened. Cable TV. Video games have happened. iPods. Cell phones. So many things have changed.”

Athletic Director Laing Kennedy estimated that faculty and community members made up more than half of Wednesday night’s crowd in the M.A.C. Center.

“We’re not a big city. It’s a small community,” Kennedy said. “Kent’s a great city. We really do rely on their support.”

Still, Mahoney said the Athletic Department regularly meets with student groups, such as the Greek community and Kent Interhall Council, to help foster an enjoyable atmosphere for the student body at games.

He has witnessed an attendance increase this year at gymnastics meets — a Kent State team with a winning history.

Kent State’s football team, on the other hand, ranked at the bottom of the MAC for attendance in 2008, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The Kent State football team had a losing record in seven of its past eight seasons.

“The bottom line is winning programs,” Mahoney said. “Your attendance goes up. Winning solves a lot of problems.”

Ciara Jastes, a junior fashion merchandising major, was at Wednesday night’s game to see the men’s team beat Ohio. The self-described “die-hard basketball fan” said she enjoys the “positive energy” of the Kent State student section.

“I like the enthusiasm the fans give,” Jastes said. “I’m pretty sure the players feed off it, and so do we.”

And that’s exactly what happens at basketball games, Ford said.

“Crowds for us are much more important than people think,” he said. “Our gym is one where they sit right on top of you, and it gets loud.”

Junior guard Rodriquez Sherman likes to see a packed M.A.C. Center because the team thrives off the crowd’s energy.

“I’m happy with (attendance), but it could be better,” he said. “I wish it was sold out every night, but people have agendas.”

Contact enterprise reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].