OREM - One of the biggest mysteries surrounding Utah Valley University isn’t how to find parking space, it is how a university with more than 33,000 students can only draw a couple hundred of those students to the men’s basketball games.
UVU has been searching for ways to grow its fan base since it made the jump from the junior college level to Division 1 level in 2002.
Increasing attendance and interest in athletic programs is something all schools are working on, but for schools like UVU, which have a smaller wallet when it comas to funding its athletic programs, increasing attendance is crucial.
“Our attendance is getting better, but it’s still not very good yet,” said UVU athletic director Vince Otoupal. “I think our men’s and women’s soccer programs set the standard for attendance in the fall, and the great thing about our fans is that they support more than one sport. We know if we can get them to come out to a game, they’re probably going to come back and support another sport.”
One of UVU’s biggest challenges in building a fan base has been to get a passionate student section that will create an atmosphere that will make a home game the place to be. But for a commuter school with no on-campus housing, that means students must stay on campus or come back.
The Wolverine Crossing apartment complex is located within a mile of the campus and houses up to 1,200 students in the fall, but the majority of UVU’s students are scattered across Utah Valley.
“We don’t have on-campus student housing like a lot of other schools have. A lot of our students are working and have young families and have a lot of things pulling them in different directions,” Otoupal said. “One of the things we have to figure out how to do is get our students, who have classes in the morning, stay on campus or if they do go home that we get them to come back at night.”
Creating a buzz surrounding athletic events is something the school’s student body officers have been focused on, and no one does that better than a small but spirited student section called “The M.A.W.L” (Mighty Athletic Wolverine League).
Last year there were about 1,200 students who paid the $20 membership. As a member, students receive special offers, swag and pregame tailgate parties.
Despite the challenges the school faces, it has been successful in raising overall attendance. Last year three of UVU’s program (men’s soccer, women’s soccer and baseball) led the WAC in attendance.
“The culture of fandom at Utah Valley is beginning to rise, which is why we're evolving how we market to the community and students,” said Kameron Dearing, Director of Marketing & Promotions. “The university has seen this challenge and responded to it by creating a new position on campus, a communications specialist, who will take care of all external marketing.
"My position will take care of all internal marketing. By doing this, we will be able to double our efforts in the marketing department. I will be focusing heavily on the game experience, making it fun and building retention.”
Men’s basketball has an eye for five
In Mark Pope’s first season as head coach, his up-tempo style of basketball played well to the fans, but this transition of implementing a new system combined with several key injuries left the team with an overall record of 12-18.
Still, the Wolverines finished third in the WAC in attendance last year. They averaged 2,384 fans per game, a slight increase from 2014-15 (2,086)
Only Grand Canyon (5,806) and New Mexico State (4,768) averaged more fans per game.
It was the second-best average per game in school history and showed tremendous progress, considering in 2003-04, UVU drew an average of 1,626 fans per game.
“I guess I’m crazy because I would like to see us sell out every night, but I realize we’re not there yet,” Pope said. “I think a good goal for us this year would be to average 4,000 fans per game, and then I could see us getting 5,000 soon. But one of the challenges is, we only have five non-conference home games this year and that’s difficult to build that continuity with your fans if you don’t consistently have home games.”
The basketball program has a significant upgrade in its schedule this year. The Wolverines will play at Utah, Gonzaga, Weber State, Utah State and BYU.
The following season, UVU will host BYU for the first time in school history, a game that is likely to become the first sellout crowd at the UCCU Center that has a seating capacity of 8,500.
The largest crowd UVU has had since competing at the Division I level was 7,124 against Utah State (2010-11)
Best crowd moment from last year: Watching Pope dance with jubilant fans following an 84-81, double-overtime win over Weber State.
Fans finding it a kick to attend men’s soccer games
UVU added the men’s soccer program two years ago and became the first Division I school in Utah with a men's NCAA soccer program. It took only two years for the soccer team to make school history. Last year, the Wolverines became the first program in school history to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines have been able to tap into a fan base that was starving for college soccer. The Wolverines finished the season 14th in attendance nationally (1,750 fans per game) in 2014 and last year they ranked 16th in national attendance (1,591). They also attracted a record crowd of 3,452 against Bradley.
"We are fortunate to have a very passionate fan base and their support has been fantastic in our first two years," men's soccer coach Greg Maas said. "Establishing a winning tradition is important, but the crazy atmosphere our 12th Wolverines create on the pitch (field) has quickly established Clyde Field as one of the most difficult venues for opponents in college soccer."
Best crowd moment from last year: Fans rushing the field following a homecoming 2-1 win over Cal State Fullerton and students waving giant green UVU flags.
Schedule helps baseball team lead the WAC in attendance
Utah Valley is one of three schools in the WAC that are in cold-weather states where frigid temperatures have a way of scaring off fans who didn’t want to spend three hours shivering under a blanket in March.
Despite Utah’s spring-weather challenges, UVU still managed to lead the WAC in attendance with 982 fans per game.
When you compare UVU’s numbers to the other two WAC schools that consistently battle the elements you begin to appreciate how well UVU is doing.
North Dakota averages 258 and Northern Colorado is last in attendance at 128.
“I think our marketing department does a great job. My job is to work with them and make sure we have the best product possible on the field,’ said UVU coach Eric Madsen. “Honestly, the only teams we played with a bigger fan base this year was at BYU and at LSU in the NCAA regionals.”
The baseball team set a single-game attendance record against BYU in 2012 with 5,456. Consistently playing BYU and Utah at home as been a big hit. Last year the Wolverines attracted 4,120 fans against BYU and 3,722 against Utah.
Best crowd moment from last year: Always a hit with the fans, the annual Tucano’s outdoor barbecue prior to the BYU game makes that game a must-see event.
Wrestling up some crowd support
As the only Division I wrestling program in Utah, the Wolverines continue to see strong support from a devoted wrestling fan base.
The Wolverines drew a record crowd of 5,470 against No. 2 Penn State at the UCCU Center in 2012. Last year they averaged 870 fans per game and wrestled in front 1,789 fans against Boise State. UVU won that match 22-12 and following the win received votes in the USA Today/NWCA Top 25 poll for the first time in school history.
The wrestling matches have managed to avoid boring breaks and offsetting matches that turn into a blowout by keeping an up-tempo pace.
A short intermission during the match doesn’t stop the action. Traditionally, there are pair of elementary-aged kids go at it on the mat and fans get into the action with by wrestling each other in bubble balls and sumo wrestling suits along with push-up challenges.
Best crowd moment from last year: When senior Derek Thomas won the final match of the night against Boise State with a 16-0 technical fall over his opponent. Thomas capped off a memorable moment as the Wolverines closed out the win by winning the final four matches.
With so many other entertainment options available that are as different as each sport UVU offers, the competition for fan support will continue to be a difficult sell. Success will be determined by how creative they were and how badly they wanted it.
Maybe one day ESPN will set up shop in Orem to televise a prime-time game, but until it will take a lengthy period of winning and a whole lot guerrilla marketing.