TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Fans are returning to McKale Center this fall. That’s a game changer for the people whose job it is to create the game day atmosphere for Arizona men’s and women’s basketball.
For all of last season, COVID-19 rules kept Wildcat fans out of the classic college hoops venue.
Games went on with pumped-in crowd noise. Men’s basketball public address announcer Jeff Dean was talking to cardboard cutouts in the seats.
“I feed off the fans as much as the players do as well, so it’s important for me to kind of get that feedback, that feedback from the fans,” Dean said. “You can definitely tell that the team, they benefit from having the swell of emotion that the fans bring to the games… And you could tell that that was missing.”
Entertainment, promotions, parking and other fan operations had to be put on hold.
“We had to completely shift gears and make sure that the student-athletes were still getting the best experience possible, and COVID obviously made that difficult without any fans,” said UArizona assistant athletic director of marketing & fan engagement Laura Little.
To that end, Little said the players had more leeway in choosing what kind of in-arena music they wanted to hear during games. But the fans’ presence was still clearly missing.
This year’s Red-Blue game gave the men’s team a taste of what they were missing last year.
“The adrenaline was crazy,” guard Dalen Terry said after the event. “Last year, you’re hearing everybody’s shoes squeaking, coach screaming, you hear everything. Now it’s like, we gotta lock in more as a team. Talk on defense.”
“Our fans came out in waves. People were wearing masks. People were just ready to support the team,” Little said of that evening.
It’s not just about fans returning, but specifically the fans here in Tucson.
“McKale Center is one of the most difficult places to play in the entire country,” Dean said. “It’s why Arizona has developed such a great home record over the last 25-30 years… The fans in Tucson are extremely knowledgeable of what the game of basketball is, when to rise and cheer, when to cheer on their team, and when to give them a little boost of confidence.”
“When I first got to Arizona I was blown away by the crowd here,” Little recalled. “The tradition around Arizona basketball. The support, the loyalty. Our fans are absolutely incredible.”
Following university rules, fans will have to wear masks inside McKale Center during games this season.
Eating or drinking in the seats is one exception. As fans return, so will concessions (that are revamped this year).
On the court, after a run to the national championship game for the women’s team and new coach Tommy Lloyd bringing new energy to the men’s side, there’s a lot for the Wildcat faithful to be excited about.
“Adia’s pumped up about having this crowd sell out for women’s basketball games,” Little said. “We got there with the WNIT Tournament [in 2019] and we have high hopes of doing that again.”
“I’m hoping that they’ve [the fans] just been kind of building up almost like a transistor and just kind of building up energy over the time that they’ve been away,” Dean said. “So that when they’re in the seats, when that first dunk happens, the first alley-top, the big three-point play happens, that they just blow the roof off McKale Center. That’s what I’m really looking forward to and hoping that they bring.”
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