ATHENS – John Bateman, the marketing director for Georgia athletics, was sitting courtside last March at Stegeman Coliseum, taking in a scene that amazed him. And like any marketing director, he started thinking ahead.
This was just an NIT game, Georgia against Vermont, and technically attendance wasn’t high. But it seemed like it, thanks to general admission seating that had the fans who were there all sitting close to the court.
“I was having memories of the games when Stegeman Coliseum was sold out,” Bateman said this week. “And how much of a homecourt advantage it can be, when the crowd is full, or at least on top of the court.”
After the game head coach Mark Fox approached Bateman in the hallway.
“That was awesome,” Fox said.
So from there was born an idea that will be put in place for this season’s home opener, when Georgia hosts Stony Brook on Tuesday night.
At the 12-minute mark of the first half - essentially, at the second media timeout - fans in the upper deck (or at other seats they’d like to improve) will be allowed to move to unoccupied seats closer to the court.
Fans will be allowed to do so if they get a wristband prior to the game, at a table on the Smith Street side of the arena. UGA is calling it the “Benchwarmers” program, and it’s modeled on a similar program at Texas, which Bateman visited three years ago.
Fans can sit anywhere other than the student section or courtside. If the original ticket-holder shows up after the 12-minute mark, it’s up to them to speak to the usher and hopefully move the wristband-holder to another seat close by.
“We just want to make sure we have a good experience for everyone involved,” Bateman said.
Georgia ranked 12th in attendance in the SEC last season, and traditionally has had trouble filling up all the seats at Stegeman, which has an official capacity of 10,523. It sold out just once last season, when Ole Miss visited.
Ticket sales are up for this season, thanks to a better home schedule and higher expectations for the team. But a big emphasis is on having better atmospheres, which would have the twofold effect of helping the team, and increasing the fan enjoyment factor.
Georgia’s two NIT games were technically the two least-attended games of Georgia’s season, at least going by tickets sold. But they were also two of the most raucous crowds because those who were there were in the best seats.
So Georgia is trying to replicate that as much as it can this season, without making it a “free-for-all”, as Bateman put it.
“We want to be very sensitive to our season-ticket holders,” Bateman said.
Season ticket sales are up 5 percent over last year. There’s also an improvement in the number of fans buying a flex plan – a package including between four-to-six games: Only 241 such plans sold last year, and this year they have sold 631 for this season.
It helps to have a better schedule: Kentucky is coming to Athens this year, unlike last year. So are Tennessee, Florida and Auburn, other good draws who weren’t on last year’s home schedule.
Still, Bateman said barely over half of those flex plans include the Kentucky game. The most flex plans UGA has ever sold is 760 in 2010-11, the last year the Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament, and it looks like that number will be surpassed this year.
Finally, UGA has also instituted a “pick your seat” program that allows season-ticket holders, if they know they can’t attend the game, to return their tickets in advance and as a result receive points towards their ticket priority account. The tickets would then be re-sold to the public.
It’s all part of an effort to make basketball games at Stegeman a better experience. The NIT games last year showed that it’s not always the number of fans who are there, but where they sit.
“The energy in the building was terrific,” Fox said after last year’s NIT first-round game. “That’s how it can be all the time."