Fans Warming up to Basketball

ATHENS – Trey Thompkins remembers the lean times at Georgia.

Those games when he and his Georgia teammates would peek at the crowd just before tip-off, and see row after row of empty seats.

Not anymore. When the Bulldogs take the court Tuesday against No. 24 Florida, it is expected to be the team's fourth straight sellout.

"It's almost like we've woken up Athens as far as basketball," Thompkins said. "Now they can look forward to two sports instead of one."

Winning can have that effect. The Bulldogs (14-4 overall and 3-2 in the SEC) have already equaled their win total from last season and were two weeks ago were ranked for the first time in eight years.

So it's no accident that the current run of sellouts hasn't been seen at Stegeman Coliseum in eight years.

In Jim Harrick's final season as coach, 2002-03, the Bulldogs sold out their final nine games. The previous year, they sold out six games.

"Since then … we have not had more than one sellout in a season until last year," said John Bateman, the director of marketing for Georgia's athletics department.

Last year, in Mark Fox's first year as head coach, there were two sellouts, and two more games where the reserved seats were sold out, but the student seats didn't sell out. This year UGA stopped selling student season tickets, and now each of the 3,206 allotted to students sells at $2 per ticket. (Total capacity is 10,523).

That approach has worked, according to Bateman, who said that UGA was also proactive in the offseason, looking to capitalize on a highly-anticipated season. Fox did his part too, going on a preseason tour of fraternities and sororities.

"I think we all would agree that winning was the No. 1 promotion," Bateman said. "But you've gotta have some plans in place so when something like this happens, you're prepared for it."

Georgia is averaging 7,573 per game this season, a number that should increase as the season goes on at Stegeman: The team has five remaining SEC home games, and a nonconference tilt against Xavier.

Bateman said the Auburn and South Carolina games, both Saturday, are both close to selling out the non-student sections.

The average home attendance last year was 6,834, and the prior year it was even less.

"Our crowd, they weren't really interested in basketball," Thompkins said. "If you don't have a crowd, it's almost like you're playing at a neutral site."

"One of the things I felt like was important was that we reestablish the atmosphere in the building and create some sort of home-court advantage," Fox said. "What our fans have done for us is really create the college basketball experience that is so prevalent in our game. Now, when our team plays here, when recruits come here, when fans come here, they get to participate in really the experience that college basketball is all about."

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