Posted: April 01, 2012

Sports biz: C-Unit brings buzz to Boulder

Stewart Schley

Years ago a friend convinced me to go in on season tickets to the University of Colorado men’s basketball program. There was a promising new perimeter guard on the team named Chauncey Billups, and coach Ricardo Patton seemed like he knew what he was doing, so what the hell. We made the trek up U.S. 36 from Denver about every other week through a frigid Colorado winter, hurrying from the parking lot to the Coors Events Center in the frosty cold on Tuesday nights.

And when we got inside, you’d have thought they were hosting a funeral.

With attendance rarely topping 4,000, few students in sight and the ambience as flat as a warm beer, college basketball in Boulder was a deflating experience. And it stayed that way for a long time.

But now something amazing is going on. Basketball at the Coors Events Center is a happening. Basketball at the Coors Events Center is, well, like the college basketball you see on ESPN at places like Duke and Syracuse: crazy kids festooned with face paint, constant noise, mania with every three-pointer that goes swish.

Welcome to the big time, CU.

It’s hard to overstate the transformation. As satisfying as it was to see Colorado win the Pac-12 championship and earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament last month, the bigger, more enduring story will transcend the glory of a single season. Tad Boyle’s Buffs have accomplished something I never thought we’d see: They’ve brought bona-fide, NCAA-quality hoops mania to Boulder.

An arena that was as sober as a library for years now rocks hard enough that CU fans made the list of eight finalists for the national Naismith Student Section of the Year Award – putting them in the company of renowned rooters from places like Kansas, Gonzaga and Indiana.

Seriously? CU? A finalist for The Naismith award? Who woulda thunk?

The change at Coors Events Center is mostly a product of winning, of course. In the regular season this year, the Buffaloes treated fans to a 14-2 record, including frenzied finishes against Arizona and Oregon that sent the place into the stratosphere. Average attendance topped 7,580 – a heady 63 percent higher than it was in 2008-09, when CU went 8-9 at home.

Funny how the smartest marketers in sports are the ones whose teams win the most games.

But still: Give credit to an athletic department that has figured out it pays to cultivate passion. Two smart moves in particular come to mind. One was the decision, suggested by then-coach Jeff Bzdelik in 2009, to move the student section from the mild-mannered center court section to just behind the south basket. You try to sink a free throw in the fourth quarter with that in your face, sports fan.

The other brilliant stroke last month was the move to invite 50 die-hard fans – members of the so-called C-Unit that rains torment down from courtside – to Los Angeles for the Pac-12 tournament, all expenses paid by private donations. Aside from the psych boost their presence may have given the team as it dispatched rival after rival, the well-publicized junket sent an unmistakable signal about fan support that seemed to elude previous marketing regimes in Boulder.

That’s the biggest contrast I can see. Used to be that CU hoops fans were treated almost like necessary evils. Save for a few generic coke-and-hot dog promotions, there was little reward or recognition for fans who turned out. Now, a combination of savvier marketing, an attractive schedule of conference opponents and – let’s not minimize the impact – a team that can win have turned around the relationship with fans. CU will be smart to continue to look for inventive ways to play off the madness, and to keep it alive.

Because the oldest cliché in spectator sports is also the truest: Buildings full of passionate fans help teams win. And teams that win tend to fill buildings with passionate fans. So go CU. And go C-Unit.

Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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