The Loyola men’s basketball team (18-4, 8-2) has a two-game lead in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) standings. This marks the first time the Ramblers have won 18 of their first 22 games since the 1965-66 season, when they made the NCAA tournament.
So far this season, Loyola has only lost one game at Gentile Arena — over winter break against Indiana State University. That success has translated to more fans coming to games.
Attendance is up 28 percent at Gentile Arena through 11 home games from last season’s first 11 home games, according to Loyola’s athletic department. Tom Sorboro, senior associate athletic director for external services, gave full credit to the Ramblers for playing well and giving people a reason to come back.
“I think we’ve put ourselves in a position to capitalize on their success, so we’re happy that people are coming to watch,” Sorboro said. “It’s a good atmosphere, it’s an overall enjoyable fan experience and it’s a great team that’s extremely well coached that plays really hard and is fun to watch. So those things combined, I think, make for a good product.”
Attendance has been lacking at Loyola home games for the last few seasons. From 2012-16, an average of 231 students came out to Gentile Arena, according to the athletics department. Through 11 games this season, an average of 442 students walked into Gentile each game. More than 1,000 students were in attendance twice this season: at the season opener against Wright State University Nov. 10, and a game against Southern Illinois University Jan. 17.
Last season, Loyola ranked last out of 10 teams in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) in attendance, averaging 1,862 total fans and 306 students per game in 16 home games.
Through 11 home games this season, Loyola is averaging 2,057 fans per game — which still ranks last in the MVC. This is, in part, due to the smaller capacity of Gentile Arena.
Gentile holds 4,486 people, which is less than the top three MVC teams’ average attendance numbers this season. Bradley University is averaging 5,125 fans per game, Illinois State University is averaging 4,855 fans per game and Missouri State University is averaging 4,631 fans per game.
But a key player in building up student attendance has left Loyola, causing Sorboro and Director of Ticket Operations Brian Day to step into new roles. Former Director of Marketing Marcus Mercer left the department Jan. 5 to take a job with the Ohio Machine, a Major League Lacrosse team in Columbus, Ohio.
While Mercer played a key role in the increase of student attendance, Sorboro said the marketing strategy will remain the same through the end of the season.
“Marcus did a great job and deserves a lot of credit for the marketing success we’ve had,” Sorboro said. “Fortunately … we sort of have year-long plans, so those remain in place. In terms of managing them on a day-to-day basis, Brian Day is sort of managing Marcus’ responsibilities. It’s also a little bit of management by committee.”
Sorboro said promotions are planned for the four remaining home games to increase attendance even more. The promotions include the unveiling of Loyola men’s basketball’s All-Century Team in celebration of the program’s 100th season and giveaways.
Sorboro also said the emergence of The Pack — the new identity for Loyola’s student section — and moving the student section to the sideline have been the biggest factors in the increase in attendance.
Day said while Mercer helped spread the word about The Pack, the plan is for the athletics department staff to take a step back and let students lead the charge. He said students will be the ones coming up with cheers and providing input as to how to get people to show up to games.
“We were a little more involved in the beginning to try and get it off the ground,” Day said. “The folks who are involved with The Pack have done an amazing job of spreading the word and making the games fun for students and obviously it’s shown in the numbers. All we want to do is support them and we want it to be a student-run group. We’d love for them to come up with the ideas and we’ll support them however we can.”
In the postgame press conference Jan. 28 — after 472 students showed up to watch the Ramblers defeat the University of Northern Iowa 70-47 — Moser thanked the students for coming out and supporting as much as they have.
“That student section means a lot to our team,” Moser said. “And that word — it’s our team. It’s the students’ team, it’s Loyola University’s team, it’s all of our team. They have a role: To keep coming out in force and making a difference in that arena.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to head to Peoria to take on Bradley University Jan. 31 and students will be able to support them at Gentile Arena Feb. 3 against Missouri State University.