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Felton's appeals to students pay off in attendance.


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Felton's appeals to students pay off in attendance

By CHIP TOWERS

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 02/06/08

Athens It's Jan. 16, it's bitterly cold outside and the state is worried about the ice and snow that is in the forecast.

It's also a Wednesday night and the Georgia Bulldogs are hosting a home basketball game against Alabama. Not surprisingly, much of Stegeman Coliseum is empty.

Much, that is, except for the northeast corner of the gymnasium. Fans stand shoulder-to-shoulder while, across the lower-level, mid-court aisle, that section is nearly empty.

The contrast is startling.

The difference? The fans in the standing-room only sections all have one thing in common. They are students.

"Oh, yeah, we definitely notice the student section," said guard Sundiata Gaines, the Bulldogs' senior co-captain. "We're definitely appreciative because we haven't always gotten that support over the last few years."

The Alabama game was no fluke. In fact, more students are coming to Georgia basketball games than at any other time under coach Dennis Felton.

An average of 3,673 students bought tickets for the Bulldogs' four home games this semester. That represents a 73 percent increase over spring semester last season and a 233 percent increase over three years ago, when the student ticket sales (1,103) reached a nadir in the post-Jim Harrick era.

Some of that increase can be attributed to the Bulldogs (11-8, 2-4 SEC) putting a better product on the court. But a significant portion of it has to be attributed to Felton and his players reaching out to the students.

For the past few years, Felton and a couple of Georgia players have made preseason rounds with UGA marketing director John Bateman to the fraternities, sororities and dormitories around campus in search of student support.

They'll make nine or 10 stops a day in late September and early October. Members of the various organizations will gather in lobbies while Bateman will hand out posters and schedules and Felton and his players will talk about the upcoming season and answer questions.

It has made an impact.

"Absolutely," said Amanda Bunning, a UGA senior and past president of Alpha Chi Omega sorority who attends most of the Bulldogs' games. "When Coach Felton and his players came by to talk to us, that really meant a lot. They're students just like us, and they're asking us for our support. It makes us want to go."

Making the rounds on campus is not a new marketing strategy. But Felton has gone the extra mile to enthuse the UGA students.

Felton grabs a microphone about 45 minutes before tipoff and interacts with the students. He talks to them about the game, thanks them for being there and then answers any questions they might have.

"Part of that is we want to encourage our fans more and more to get here early and start building the atmosphere," Felton said. "I think that's helped some."

Also, Felton hopes he's begun a new tradition by having the team enter the court by running down the steps through the student section before games. After Georgia's home victories, Felton always runs up into crowd and high-fives and exhorts the students.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulldogs are 10-1 in home games this season. They were undefeated before this past weekend's loss to Kentucky.

"I've always been really, really grateful to the students," said Felton, who said he had a similar rapport with students when he coached at Western Kentucky. "They're such important fans because this is their time. The students that are here now, this really is their team. These guys are their classmates. And students are the ones that have the most to do with making the atmosphere terrific."

Said Bateman: "Even though we've had lulls trying to build this program back, these students have been with Dennis since the first day and stuck with him. He's done a great job of embracing them. He's connecting, that's for sure."

Overall attendance at Georgia basketball remains a work in progress. This season the Bulldogs have averaged 7,725 tickets sold in their 10,500-seat arena (they don't calculate actual attendance, which would be lower).

While that represents an increase for the fourth consecutive season, it's far fewer than were coming the last two seasons under Harrick. In his final season (2002-03) average attendance was 9,857, which included a record of 4,004 in season-ticket sales to students.

But thanks to student turnout this season, the Bulldogs are enjoying at least a modest home-court advantage. It's especially evident in Section N on the baseline behind the Georgia basket. There students paint their bodies and dress up in wacky costumes and scream at the Dogs' opponents.

"They're the best fans anyway, as far as making noise and standing up and getting into the game," senior co-captain Dave Bliss said. "They've consistently been there for us, and we appreciate it."

Said Gaines: "They're showing the effort to come out and support us. It's our job to go out and make it an entertaining, fun game for them and hopefully win as well."

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I still think about Felton's comments about the most talented core he's ever coached. Another long, sad season ahead. I think the feel good stuff printed in the paper should wait until we can have at least one nice win. There's really no way to sugar coat it: this team is shaping up to be pretty bad.

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