Basketball fans showing up to see FIU’s work first-hand

Those who attended FIU men’s basketball games in recent years likely noticed several differences at U.S. Century Bank Arena if they hit any of the five home games this season.

There’s the colorful beach-themed court. No, that’s not spilled glitter, that’s supposed to be sand. There’s the cabanas at the court’s west end because beach courts need cabanas. There’s fans in lifeguard chairs. There’s stuff happening. And, there’s fans, period. More of them.

FIU’s official attendance over the five home games this year is 1,447. While that’s not exactly packing them in glute-to-glute, that’s a significant jump on last year’s 859.6 average over the first five home games and 2011-12’s 1034.4. None of the first five games in either season beat this year’s average.

That number should rise Saturday afternoon when FIU plays Florida Gulf Coast. In addition to a weekend game against a school whose fans can easily drive over, there’s a pregame tailgate outside the arena FIU hopes will bring in student support. The first 300 students get blue basketball tank tops.

At halftime, FIU will retire the No. 22 of senior guard Jerica Coley, the fifth-leading women’s basketball scorer in the nation and one of the most widely liked athletes at FIU. If that seems premature, note that the University of Miami retired quarterback Vinny Testaverde’s jersey before a game his senior year to draw fans to watch the No. 1 Hurricanes demolish East Carolina.

“She’s such a great kid and a role model,” FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said. “We wanted her family and fans to appreciate her here while she’s a senior.”

The genesis of this, Garcia said, came during last spring’s Sun Belt Conference tournament. Plans to paint the U.S. Century Bank Arena floor (now “Lime Court”) as a beach scene already had gone forward.

“Miami is an event town” Garcia said. “Getting people out to games, requires something other than just winning. They have to have a good time.”

So, then came the cabanas, the lifeguard chairs and stacking promotions.

Only 249 season tickets and 4,389 total tickets were sold last year. That doesn’t count students, who get in free. Garcia didn’t have an exact number on this year’s season tickets, but said he knows it’s more than last year.

“Where we’re seeing an increase is we’re getting a lot of walkups,” Garcia said.

Also, having defending national champion Louisville coming in Dec. 21 helps boost season ticket sales. But a look at the arena population says the official attendance numbers, a count of tickets distributed or sold not actual humans, aren’t goosed by just one game.

Whereas last year the small student section bleachers at the west end would be filled and couples and trios dotted the individual reserved seats along the sidelines, the reserved seats have been better populated this year. Students have shown up in greater numbers.

Because it seems to be working, expect FIU to stay with it. And they also need to hope the 7-4 basketball team continues to play an athletic, entertaining style. With success.

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