This is the first of a three-part series on the atmosphere of Razorback basketball games at Bud Walton Arena.
After two weeks of turmoil that ended with the promising hire of new coach John Pelphrey, it is high time we moved on to the next pressing matter for Razorback Basketball: the malaise that is the atmosphere at Bud Walton Arena.
For the last 13 years, we have billed Bud Walton Arena as the “Basketball Palace of Mid-America.” But over the last several seasons, the stagnation of the fan experience at games has, in my view, been a large part of the reason for the drop-off in attendance that has occurred. Having an exciting team to come watch these days is only part of the equation. Fans — especially students — crave a high-energy venue.
What a trip to BWA has evolved into is an antiseptic performance by the band and spirit squads, intertwined into a series of advertisements and public address announcements. The scripted nature of the cheers and music without any sense of timing while the game is going on has just become pure comedy. For example, no longer is the “William Tell Overture” saved for an important point in the game. No…we can ‘only play that song at the 16-minute timeout of the second half.’
How did it get to this point? It appears to some that the ring leaders of the circus — Band Director Tim Gunter, Spirit Group Coordinator Jean Nail, Marketing Director Matt Shanklin and Associate AD Bill Gray — have a complete lack of imagination and possess an unwillingness to change. These two traits have allowed our basketball experience to fall behind the times. And while these four should be applauded for their dedication to the program, their refusal to let the BWA experience evolve into the 21st Century has become ‘part of the problem.’
A few weeks ago, when our fans and administration finally realized that Arkansas Basketball had slipped and was no longer a top 10 program that could attract a ‘big name’ coach, writer Scott Cain asked former Razorback player and current ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes: ‘How’d this happen?’
“As beautiful and as great a facility as Bud Walton is, it’s a little outdated on game day because the students are not situated where they can impact that game,” Dykes said. “The music, how they go about everything from the pregame to the timeouts, a lot of those schools right now are doing something a little bit different.
[...] “Michigan State, North Carolina, places like that, in timeouts they’re piping in music, blasting and blaring like NBA games and the place is going nuts,” Dykes said. “Small things like that can make a major impact on those home courts.”
Dykes was kind when he referred to the Nail-Gunter experience as “a little outdated.” As many college basketball venues as Dykes visits during the season, his opinions should carry a lot of weight.
Something’s got to give here…if for no other reason than to aid in recruiting. You must always be mindful of what sells your program to an 18-year-old. And I don’t think we’re getting that done by playing the 1962 smash hit, “Hey, Baby” by Bruce Channel. Keeping the same course is doing our new coach and staff a disservice — putting them at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to recruiting.
In the next segment on Thursday, we’ll take a look at what other college and NBA teams are doing before and during games to make their venues special.