Maryland alum and ESPN personality Scott Van Pelt lit into Maryland fans on his radio show for not showing up in force for the Terrapins’ must-win game against Florida State, using it as an example of a declining energy on the part of the students for their team. Van Pelt has made a number of objectionable remarks over the years, and having not been at the game I cannot speak to the energy level of the fans assembled. But I know that Maryland should never have empty seats for an ACC game… but how big of a problem is this? It speaks more to the state of the program than it does to the state of the team.
You know what the worst part about Van Pelt’s remarks are? He’s right, at least on principle. If Maryland ever wants to be considered alongside Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Georgetown, etc. in the college basketball landscape again, they will have to win games. But they will also have to have a rabid fanbase that supports them at home and on the road. It doesn’t matter if your team is really good, there are plenty of really good teams with apathetic fan bases. What makes (or is supposed to make) Maryland different is the fact that fans go insane there, the students are raucous and fill Comcast to the brim, that they scream and chant such horrifying things that it brings J.J. Reddick to tears. That is what Maryland is supposed to be. When they cannot sell out an ACC game it puts them firmly on the second tier of basketball programs, not just the second tier of basketball teams.
I understand that the team hasn’t performed to the level that Maryland fans expect over the last few years. But as a student, you only have four years to go to the games, only four years to live in that section and experience a game that way. When Michigan football has gone 3-9, 5-7, and 7-5 over the last three years, the 110,000 seat stadium was still sold out every week. The student section? Overflowing, and that’s with ticket packages that cost $200 for students. Maryland basketball is supposed to be on that level, or at least I consider it as such. Maryland is a legendary basketball powerhouse, with students that are known as some of the dirtiest and cruelest fans in the country- and that’s a good thing. It is an intimidation factor that separates them from all but the most active fans, and it comes from the students, at least in theory.
Attendance isn’t about how good your team is, just look at the Tampa Bay Rays and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are a laughing stock on the field, but they sell out Wrigley because of the pride in the team and the fan experience. The Rays suffer from a terrible ballpark and utter apathy on the part of the surrounding population. The Orioles maintained high attendance for a decade into their losing seasons until the product on the field was too difficult to bear- but even the most pessimistic O’s fans know that just a hint of a winner will send fans back to Camden Yards.
Instead, attendance is about energy, about pride. It is something intrinsic to that fan base, part of the culture that engulfs the team. I disagree with Van Pelt that the caliber of student has anything to do with energy at the game. While it’s true that the bookworms are generally less enthusiastic, when it comes to a sport like basketball there are always reasons to cut loose, especially when the tickets are free and the team has a reputation like it does. Maryland can pursue academic excellence and even out of state students who didn’t grow up Maryland fans and still have just as terrifying a student section as ever before.
But this is a larger issue. It speaks to a sense of apathy that might be developing among Maryland fans who have gotten too accustomed to the same level of talent and achievement on the team. They see a borderline tournament team almost every year, and they see Gary Williams pull it into the tournament 9 times out of 10. There isn’t the urgency or the energy among fans that perhaps was seen in past years, but that is not an excuse. Cameron Indoor doesn’t worry about fans showing up. The Dean Smith Center doesn’t see empty seats in the student section. If Maryland wants to think of themselves on that level as a program, they need to be on that level as a fan base.