One year after a Winthrop University basketball ticket was the hottest item in town, the Eagles are hoping a burning rivalry and the return of students to campus will spark a run on ticket sales.
The 2006-2007 Eagles completed the most successful basketball season in school history, highlighted by a sellout crowd of 6,100 against Coastal Carolina on Jan. 27, 2007, and capped with an NCAA tournament win against Notre Dame last March.
But since that magical Cinderella run, new coach Randy Peele replaced record-setting boss Gregg Marshall, new faces took charge of promoting Winthrop athletics and attendance has dropped by 24 percent.
Several things have been blamed for the empty seats, including the absence of students during winter break, a host of new faces on the court and a marketing effort slow to get off the ground during the pre-season.
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Dan Hopper, Winthrop's assistant athletic director for marketing and promotions, said the attendance drop can largely be blamed on scheduling conflicts. Four of the eight homes games so far this season were played when Winthrop was between semesters. Last year, only one home game was scheduled during the break.
"I think we've got to get more presence and brand the Winthrop image even more so, when you see the garnet and gold, you know what that's all about, period," he said. "The interaction with the community -- even with a million dollar budget -- I couldn't beat it."
Hopper, who replaced longtime Winthrop marketing guru Jason Capel, who accepted a position in Boone, N.C., last summer, said part of the attendance dip can be attributed to his late start on the job. He didn't arrive in Rock Hill until September. That left him little time to implement a marketing strategy, fully schedule in-game promotions and book community appearances for Coach Peele before the season -- all things he plans to improve upon in the future.
"I really wish I could have been here a month earlier," he said.
Another common assertion about the dip in ticket sales is the new faces on the court. Stars Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams all graduated. Marshall, who had become a local celebrity, moved to Kansas. And crowd favorite DeAndre Adams died from injuries he sustained in a May car wreck.
But Hopper and Peele contend that's not a fair judgment.
"I think everyone forgets we've still got four returning seniors from last season," Hopper said. "If this team plays to its potential, I don't see why we can't win the conference, win the tournament, get into the NCAAs and win again."
Peele agrees. He said senior Chris Gaynor was honored Wednesday for setting school records in assists and steals, and senior Michael Jenkins was saluted for joining the 1,000-point club.
"We've had some great wins. We're 2-0 against the ACC. Our fans don't understand what it means to beat Akron and Old Dominion," he said about the Eagles' early success, including wins against Georgia Tech and Miami. "I would've thought our attendance would be a little better considering what our team has done. I can't explain why it's been the way it's been."
Despite the decline, the Eagles remain optimistic. Saturday's game likely will be the biggest crowd of the year. Four more Saturday home games, known to attract more fans, are on the schedule through March 1. And it can't be overlooked that Winthrop has come a long way from the sub-1,000 crowds once witnessed at the Coliseum less than a decade ago.
"I'm not in any way bashing our fans. We've got great fans. It was a great atmosphere in the Coliseum last year, and I know that's a tough act to follow. But we're gaining momentum," Peele said, noting the Eagles have won seven out of their last nine games. "How can you not be pleased with where this team is right now? I really want our school and our community to get behind these kids and take pride."
WINTHROP ATTENDANCE Overall 2007-2008 - 2,862 2006-2007 - 3,787 2005-2006 - 2,606
Conference games2007-2008 - 3,111*2006-2007 - 4,3092005-2006 - 3,141* Through first two games
BATTLE OF THE BIRDS
The Winthrop University men’s basketball team will face in-state rival Coastal Carolina University in a televised game at 7 p.m. Saturday. In recent meetings, the grudge match often has been decided on the final play of the game. Last year, the bitter rivalry was the first sellout at the Winthrop Coliseum.Here’s a glimpse at the two schools and what you need to know for the big game:
Record: 12-7 (3-1 in Big South Conference)Mascot: Big Stuff the EagleLocation: Rock HillEnrollment: 6,292Did you know? The Winthrop student section, known as the WU Crew, chanted “We Want Coastal” at the end of Wednesday’s blowout victory against Virginia Military Institute.
Coastal Carolina University
Record: 9-8 (2-2 in Big South Conference)Mascot: The ChanticleerLocation: ConwayEnrollment: 7,872Did you know? A Chanticleer is a proud rooster known to dominate the barnyard in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” It was selected as mascot because Coastal once was part of the University of South Carolina system and wanted a mascot related to the Gamecock but also with its own identity.
Why such hard feelings?
The history of the Winthrop-Coastal rivalry is hard to define, but like many archrivals, the two schools’ proximity and success play large roles.
Besides both calling the Palmetto State home, many point to the competition between men’s basketball, soccer and baseball in recent years.
In 2006, Coastal beat the Eagles’ men’s basketball team twice during the regular season and nearly derailed the Eagles’ plans for a conference championship.
But, thanks to a Craig Bradshaw hook shot with only seconds to play, Winthrop defeated the Chanticleers, 51-50, in a nationally televised game to win the championship.
The two schools’ soccer and baseball programs also have been among the winningest in the Big South over the past decade.
Saturday’s game will be televised on Sports South, channel 32 for Comporium cable customers.
A ticket promotion of $5 per ticket is available for groups of 10 or more. Individual tickets are $12 and $10. For details, call (803) 323-2345, or visit the Web site www.winthropeagles.com.
WHAT STUDENTS ARE SAYING
Herald reporter Adam O’Daniel talked with students on the Winthrop University campus Thursday to hear their feedback on Saturday’s big game and the lagging attendance this season. Here’s what they had to say:
“We love our team, at least the freshmen do. It’s a big topic, everyone’s like, ‘Y’all going to the game.’ ... But I can’t pick a side because Coastal’s only 30 minutes from home for me.”- Brittany Jones, 18, chemistry major
“I don’t know why people aren’t coming to more games. The last few haven’t had a great turnout. I don’t think it’s right to come to a game and then sit on your hands and not cheer. I mean, this is your school; you need to go show your pride.”- Bart Simonson, 18, physical education major
“Our (former) coach (Gregg Marshall) is gone. That’s a big part of it (the lower attendance).”- Erin Phillips, 20, music performance major and pep band member
“It’s like no one cares who else we play, they’re just like, ‘Bring on Coastal.’”- Amy Ellison, 19, math major