MINNEAPOLIS — The Michigan men’s basketball team starts its regular season tomorrow night against Michigan Tech. The game will be played in Crisler Arena, a venue as cold as the Diag in February and as impersonal as the bar code on the back of your M-Card.
It’s unlikely that many students will make the trek to South Campus for the game. Certainly, doubts about the product they will see on the court are a big reason fans won’t flock to Crisler. But a ticket is free, and on most Division-I campuses, a no-cost invitation to the basketball team’s season opener would draw a crowd.
The Athletic Department has been making improvements to Crisler over the past few years and says that after the Michigan Stadium renovations are complete, the basketball venue is next in line for improvements.
Upgrading the facility will certainly enhance the atmosphere and may make Crisler a fun place to watch a basketball game. By the time the renovations are complete, chances are that Michigan basketball will be back to a high level under coach John Beilein.
The Athletic Department probably expects the renovations and improved quality of play to coalesce into a great atmosphere for fans, but this weekend showed me that even with a great team and a great facility, a stellar fan experience is not assured.
While in Minneapolis to cover the football game, I took in the No. 4 Minnesota hockey team’s game against No. 5 New Hampshire.
There was plenty of talent on the ice Friday night.
The Golden Gophers play their home games in beautiful Mariucci Arena. Constructed in 1993, Mariucci is clean, bright and has excellent sightlines from every seat.
No amenity was left out.
Surprisingly, even for a big non-conference game against a top-five opponent, the Minnesota fans weren’t loud and didn’t play a factor in the game. The student section stood up for the whole game, but that was about it.
There were no raucous chants, inappropriate or otherwise, when a New Hampshire player went to the penalty box. When the Wildcats scored, Gopher fans let the visiting parents cheer unabused.
Comparing that crowd to what the atmosphere would have been like at Yost Ice Arena for a game of that magnitude (see Michigan vs. No. 1 Boston College in 2005) makes it clear that a brand-new building can’t guarantee an excited fan base and neither can a great matchup.
Yost was old before it became a hockey arena in 1973. The bleachers are warped and the views are often obstructed. But night in and night out, it is loud. The student section and the general public make Yost a tough place to play for visiting teams.
But the age of the arenas isn’t the most important difference between Yost and Mariucci, and neither is the quality of the game being played on the ice. The key distinction is that Michigan fans want to have an impact on the game.
Yost fans aren’t just there to watch. Yost fans are there to be a part of the action.
So the Athletic Department, the basketball program and its fans should take heed. A renovated Crisler may bring students and locals out to games in droves, but it won’t make them rowdy. A top-notch Michigan team won’t either.
Obviously, you can’t build a fan base without a winning team. But Michigan basketball was a winning team in the 1990s, and when the team got worse, the fans left. So once the fan base is built, how can you prevent it from crumbling when the team hits hard times?
Creating an atmosphere like the one at Yost is the best way to keep up a fan base through a tough season or two. Winning plays a key role, but more responsibility falls on the fans. They have to be part of the experience, not just a viewer.
The Michigan basketball team will keep improving. The Athletic Department will spend the money to make Crisler a better venue to watch a game. But until Michigan basketball fans decide they don’t just want to watch a game, they want to be a part of one, going to a game at Crisler will never come near the experience of going to a game at Yost.
—Sandals can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.