Blame the University of Wisconsin Department of Athletics Ticket Office.
The Kohl Center has 2,100 seats set aside during Men's Basketball games for it's student body of over 42,000. As a result of increasing demand for tickets, in 2003, the Athletic Department implemented a student season ticket lottery.
This lottery was weighted so that a student received one chance for each year of enrollment at UW, receiving up to four chances. A few weeks after entering, students would anxiously await a confirmation e-mail from the university telling them they were one of the chosen few.
Following the confirmation distribution, winners could form groups of up to four and register with the ticket office. From that time on, at least one member of the group had to be in line, outside at the Kohl Center until ticket turn in roughly four days later.
As an undergraduate and now a graduate student at UW, I have experienced the ticket distribution process first hand. Sitting outside at 3 a.m. at the end of October in Wisconsin may not sound like much fun, but it is. And, it's not just fun, it's good for the students, it's good for the team and it's good for the University.
Everyone in that line had one thing in common: love of Badger Basketball. Playing catch with a football, watching DVD's on a laptop or reminiscing about great Bo Ryan quotes with complete strangers has a tendency to foster team spirit and school pride. The experience gave the people in line a chance to meet the other fanatics that they would be spending roughly 40 glorious hours with in the coming months. Perhaps most importantly, it created a heightened level of expectation for the upcoming season and it garnered a sense of accomplishment once the tickets were finally in hand.
This year, the University ticket office decided to change the ticket distribution method. A weighted lottery was still in place but with a minor adjustment. In addition to class standing chances, students received one chance for each year of season ticket lottery participation (not including the current year) up to three. So, a junior who had participated in the lottery each of his or her first two years would receive five chances (3 student standing + 2 lottery participation). This was a step in the right direction because it gave loyal fans an improved chance at winning tickets. Unfortunately, the progress ended here.
Seats were now awarded according to the same point system used by the weighted lottery. Lottery winners formed groups of up to six, each group's point average was calculated, and the groups with the highest average were awarded the best seats. In other words, the student section was stratified largely by class standing, leaving the freshmen and sophomores in the upper decks.
Under the old system, the lottery winners who most wanted the best tickets got them, regardless of class standing. On game day, this translated into the extreme fans packing the lowest rows of the student section. As an organized entity, the most dedicated of the "Grateful Red," Wisconsin's student section, were able to mount a fan frenzy rivaling any in the country.
The new system, however, has spread the most hardcore Badgers throughout the student section, noticeably quieted the crowd, and severely hampered the Grateful Red's ability to rally the troops.
Now, let's look at how this season could have played out under the old ticket distribution process.
Though Wisconsin's invincibility at the Kohl Center has been well documented, the Badgers finished only 10-2 at home this year, falling to Marquette and Purdue. I will concede the loss to Marquette. At that point in the season, the Badgers were struggling to find their identity, and the Golden Eagles still looked like a team that could make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The February 9, 2008 loss to Purdue is a completely different story. In that match up, the Boilermakers took the lead before the first media timeout and pushed that lead to 10 at halftime. As the second half began, it seemed as if Wisconsin was one big play away from starting a rally.
In the past, it was instances like these that the Kohl Center faithful, led by the Grateful Red, would get out of their seats and ignite the team. Whenever the Badgers on the court needed some big defensive stops, the Badgers in the student section would help out by creating a deafening roar that made it difficult for the opposing team to communicate and run their offense effectively.
Unfortunately, that crowd energy, and the resulting home-court advantage, was absent this year. Against Purdue, Wisconsin did rally, it was just a little too late. A Jason Bohannon lay-up cut the lead to single digits, but not until just over nine minutes remained. When the final buzzer sounded, the Badgers had lost two home games in the same season for just the second time since Bo Ryan's hiring.
There are plenty of other instances this season where the Badgers have not played well (i.e. trailing by 11 in the first half against IPFW, down 11 to Georgia at halftime). Fortunately, UW managed to avoid a letdown despite lack of crowd energy.
But one game doesn't make or break a season, does it? What would have happened if the Badgers had handled the Boilermakers on February 9th?
At the time of the Purdue loss, Wisconsin was No. 8 in both the Coaches' and AP polls. Since the Monday those polls came out, every team above the Badgers has lost (in order: Memphis, Duke (3), UNC, Kansas (2), UCLA, Georgetown (2), Tennessee).
Voting for both major polls is not difficult to forecast. As a general rule, voters simply review their ballot from the previous week, bump teams that lost down, and replace them with teams that won. For simplicity's sake, I will flesh out this argument using only the AP poll.
The same week Wisconsin lost to Purdue, UNC (No.3), UCLA (No.5) and Georgetown (No.6) all lost. Since UCLA and Georgetown both dropped games to unranked opponents, had Wisconsin won, they (and Tennessee) would have jumped the Bruins and the Hoyas. UNC's loss was to then second-ranked Duke so it'd be safe to assume the Tarheels would have remained above Wisconsin. When the new poll came out it would have looked something like this: Memphis, Duke, Kansas, Tennessee, UNC, Wisconsin.
That week, while the Badgers were busy winning at No. 13 Indiana and also convincingly beating Minnesota on the road, Kansas dropped one to Texas, a team the Badgers had already beaten. In the meantime, Duke lost to unranked Wake Forest. New poll: Memphis, Tennessee, UNC, Wisconsin.
The following week, Tennessee took down Memphis so they simply flip flopped. UNC and Wisconsin both went 2-0. New poll: Tennessee, Memphis, UNC, Wisconsin.
A week later, Tennessee, mentally exhausted from their battle with Memphis, got beaten by Vanderbilt. Neither Memphis nor UNC lost, but voters, uncomfortable with Memphis as the top team in the country, deviated from their standard process and gave the nod to UNC. Meanwhile, Wisconsin crushed No. 19 Michigan State. New poll: UNC, Memphis, Wisconsin.
Last week, UNC, Memphis, and Wisconsin all closed out their conference seasons with victories which would have left the top of the polls unchanged. Although Wisconsin's current No. 8 ranking is nothing to be ashamed of, it's not difficult to see that it could easily be five spots higher.
This really isn't a pipe dream either. It is one game, not a complicated series of events, and it's not unrealistic to believe that a more hostile Kohl Center wouldn't have fueled the Badgers to victory. If the Purdue game had gone the other way, there's no reason Wisconsin would be anywhere outside the top five this week. What's more, Bo Ryan's team would be riding an 11-game win streak into the post season and would very likely be a favorite for a one-seed in the Big Dance.
The ticket office made this year's changes in response to an online student survey, with the help of student focus groups and the student government. In an e-mail sent to UW students last April, the Athletic Department said, "These efforts provided valuable feedback indicating a desire for improvements to the ticketing process."
The old system was far from perfect and under it, many diehard fans still got snubbed. I genuinely believe that the University was trying to improve their flawed system for the good of the students. However, by trying to please as many people as possible, the University of Wisconsin ticket office alienated the most hardcore of the Grateful Red. In the process they also maybe, just maybe, cost the Badger Men's Basketball team a shot at the school's first ever No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.