St. Louis — The lack of Indiana State fans at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament would stick out like a sore thumb ... if the Sycamores’ contingent stuck out at all.
For the sixth consecutive year, ISU played in the quarterfinals of the tourney. The quarters are the day when nearly every fan base in the conference is represented, as eight of the league’s 10 teams play. It’s an MVC party. There wasn’t much Sycamore blue in the Scottrade seats on Friday. ISU pre-sold 108 tickets for Arch Madness, easily among the lowest numbers of advanced tickets sold by any conference school. There were a few more Sycamore fans who went the walk-up route to buy their tickets on Friday — ISU’s representation seemed marginally better than past seasons. Good for them.
But ISU’s turnout is still very, very low. Compared to the veritable armies of fans from some of the other schools (Wichita State sold over 1,000 advanced tickets and had more via walk-up), many of them traveling from far further afield than those who make the 2 1/2-hour trek to St. Louis from Terre Haute, the lack of ISU ticket-buying support for Arch Madness is striking and it’s not an new phenomenon.
When you’re here and you see for yourself how far short of the mark ISU is in bringing fans to the league’s marquee event, it’s easy to wonder what’s going through the minds of the conference brass. Is there anything the conference can do to help/cajole ISU to get its numbers up?
MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin said there isn’t a minimum ticket-buying standard conference schools must meet, nor are there any punitive measures in place to enforce any kind of standard if there was one.
“The members are dependent on the conference office to lead. In our conference, at least since I’ve been here, it’s a family. Sometimes the conference needs to be parental; we don’t have a vote [in league matters], but we have to steer the ship. It really is difficult sometimes for schools to understand that they can’t be selfish, they have to do what’s best for the whole. It is a democracy and majority rules. People have to sometimes put their own institutional self-interests aside for the betterment and good for the conference,” said Elgin, describing in a nutshell how the conference-member school relationship works in the MVC.
So where does ISU fit in that definition? What can the league do to make the rest of the conference feel as if Indiana State is doing its part to promote the conference’s vision?
“I think our role is to market and promote. We’re not purely socialist, but yet we don’t allow the rich to get richer. There has to be an understanding that we’re only as strong as our weakest link and it’s cyclical. In 2000 and 2001, ISU was a monster in men’s basketball,” Elgin said.
Though he acknowledged the struggles ISU has had in selling tickets for Arch Madness, Elgin looked at ISU’s situation from a glass-half-full perspective. He had an optimistic view on the Sycamores’ future, starting from the top down.
“I look at Indiana State and I think there’s strong leadership. [ISU President] Daniel Bradley has come there, and in a recession, they’re building and refurbishing. [Director of Athletics] Ron Prettyman has made some tough decisions. He’s a wonderful person, but he’s done things that needed to be done in some cases,” Elgin said. “We root for programs to get on their feet and get better. Indiana State is a brand name that’s recognizable everywhere and it’s not just because of the great year they had with Larry Bird.”
Elgin also acknowledged that there are challenges in the Terre Haute market that don’t exist in other MVC cities, notably the fact that Terre Haute is solidly in the bottom half of the league in terms of market size.
“It’s a small town compared to the money and power in Wichita, Omaha and Des Moines. It’s tough to compete. I think they’ve done a good job getting the most out of what they have. They’re not as deep an administrative staff as other Valley schools, by far, but they’re maximizing the people they have and doing the best job possible,” Elgin said.
It’s not as if ISU is a red-headed stepchild. Elgin alluded to facility improvements and Sycamore fans have supported the MVC women’s tournament, especially given the recent success of the ISU women (and a more economical ticket), as ISU perenially has one of the biggest fan bases there.
The caveat is that the standard of having a large turnout at the women’s tournament is a night-and-day difference from Arch Madness. This year, 51,613 fans attended the five sessions at Scottrade Center for the men’s tournament — considered something of a down year — compared to 6,909 that attended the same amount of sessions at Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo. last year for the women’s tourney.
Of course, the biggest and most obvious reason ISU fans have stayed away from St. Louis is its lack of recent success on the court. Until this season, ISU had losing seasons from 2002-09, not exactly a carrot for Sycamore fans to make the commitment to come to St. Louis.
Elgin thinks that can change, he likes the improvement he saw from ISU’s program this season.
“It’s encouraging to see what [ISU coach] Kevin [McKenna] has done despite the [injury-related] adversity he’s had. For him to get recognition for Coach of the Year, there’s optimism there. Everything is cyclical, but I think Indiana State is in good hands. I see them as a good fit in the league. Yeah, they haven’t sold as many tickets for the men’s basketball tournament, but teams at the bottom of the standings normally don’t. They’re on their way back up.” Elgin said.
Let’s hope so. It would be nice if ISU fans would shake the wallflower reputation they have elsewhere in MVC circles and join the party in St. Louis.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.