When students who’ve never attended a Loyola men’s volleyball game try and picture the atmosphere inside Gentile Arena in the moments before the first serve, they probably fall short in their imagined expectations.
No, there aren’t tumbleweeds blowing across the court during timeouts. The student section isn’t a ghost town. Despite a disappointing 5-10 start to the season, Loyola is pulling its highest per-game attendance since the 2017 season, with an average of 740 fans packing into Gentile on game nights. That’s more than the team averaged during the 2015 season, the year it captured a NCAA title.
While students have free admission, tickets for non-students range from $7 to $10. Despite the early-season skid, Loyola Director of Marketing and Ticket Operations Brian Day has seen the increase in sales so far this season as expected and, perhaps more importantly, sustainable.
“We build our marketing and ticketing sales plans in a way that it shouldn’t matter if [our record is] 0-20 or 20-0,” Day said.
With attendance up from 2019, when the team went 21-8, it looks like those plans are paying off.
In the largest turnout for a regular season men’s volleyball game in more than a decade, 2,102 fans came out to support the Ramblers as they lost to No. 1-ranked University of Hawaii Jan. 18. That game was also the second-highest regular season attendance in program history.
Ava Pagnucco, a sophomore neuroscience major, said the team’s overall performance this season hasn’t impacted her decision to attend games. Pagnucco said she’s been to seven of Loyola’s nine home games this season.
“I haven’t really considered their record,” Pagnucco, 19, said. “Even watching games where the men’s team loses, they play so intense and it always seems like they give it their all.”
After being picked to finish third in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) preseason poll, the team currently sits in sixth after playing five matches in conference. Loyola head coach Mark Hulse said in a recent postgame interview that the team is still trying to work out their issues on the court, but the results just haven’t been there to start the year.
“Our expectation is that it’s going to be really tough,” Hulse said. “Wins are going to be really hard to come by, and we’ve got to be really sharp to get them.”
The Ramblers graduated seven seniors last May, and Day pointed to the high turnover as a big reason for the team’s early-season slump. But the players are a great marketing opportunity, he said.
“One thing that we wanted to make sure we were doing this year was to introduce the [new players on the] team to the campus community and the Chicago volleyball community,” Day said. “That personal connection helps a lot when you’re trying to sell tickets.”
For many students, that introduction happened during halftime of a men’s basketball game against Southern Illinois University last month. The volleyball team played a quick, high-energy scrimmage, which Day said was a great chance to expose the athletes to the 3,008 fans in attendance.
Senior statistics major Charles Hwang said he thinks students who haven’t gone to games are missing out. He also said the team is fun to watch even though this year hasn’t been as successful as recent seasons.
“This team is really just a hidden gem,” Hwang, 21, said. “This year may be a bit of a rebuilding year, but [it’s] such a fun team to watch.”
Despite the down year, men’s volleyball remains a favorite among students, alumni and members of the Chicago sports community. Averaging the second highest attendance among all Loyola programs behind men’s basketball, men’s volleyball in 2020 is proving it has a loyal, committed fanbase.
It’s also important to note the season is still young. The Ramblers have only played nine of their 16 home matches on the year — winning four of them — and attendance numbers could fluctuate as the year progresses.
However, Day said he thinks home matches later in the season against big-name volleyball schools such as Lewis University and Princeton University will boost the attendance numbers.
Loyola may not be the volleyball powerhouse its been in previous years, but annual growth in home game attendance — regardless of the team’s play — mirrors the collective increase in popularity of Loyola athletics. Day said increased admissions in recent years coupled with athletic successes created a “perfect storm’’ for attendance.
For students who come to Loyola who have never seen a match, Day said he’s confident it’ll only take one game to turn them into fans.
“The first time you see it it’s pretty powerful … how fast the game is, how hard they’re hitting,” Day said. “Once [students] see it, they might become hooked.”