#TGW: Crowd Building

Jan. 26, 2018

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

– A ticket to Georgia Tech men’s basketball is getting hot in Atlanta again.

The team’s success at McCamish Pavilion — 9-4 (2-1 in ACC play) this year, 26-8 (7-2) from the start of last season, when the Jackets set a school record for home wins in the first year under Coach Josh Pastner — and its scrappiness when it’s not successful is a big reason why.

But as important as the quantity of the fans is their quality, especially the volume they’re bringing. That noise has been vital to team success, as Pastner constantly points out, and is bringing back the ear-plug-wearing days of Thrillerdome at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

“Our best advantage is our home court,” Pastner said. “Why we won 17 games last year is strictly because of the home court advantage. We’ve got to keep the home court advantage for us to win games. We’ve got to protect home court. That student section and the fan base gives us that because that place is loud in there.”

Such praise is music to the ears of Phil Lewicki, associate director of marketing and digital media at Georgia Tech, who is responsible for in-arena aesthetics like the music playing in McCamish and the scoreboard video board graphics. But it comes in second to hearing the roar of the Tech faithful.

“To hear the crowd on game day and to see our student-athletes get excited when they come out for warmups and they see everyone there ready for the game, I think is definitely really rewarding,” said Lewicki, in his fourth year on the job. “It’s great to kind of feel like you’re making a difference in what’s happening on the court even though, obviously, I’m not shooting any layups or taking a charge or anything like that.”

But promotions is an area in which Lewicki does make a noticeably profound difference.

Sometimes getting to see winning basketball at the ACC level and catching the quality players and coaches throughout the ACC isn’t enough.

Sometimes a little extra enticement helps get students to venture out while snowed under the figurative avalanche of Georgia Tech curriculum or, like recently, non-students and alumni are faced with literal snowfall and accompanying ice that created potentially hazardous driving conditions.

Working with the complete cooperation of Pastner, Lewicki and the promotions team have been able to keep fans intrigued by offering a series of innovative and offbeat promotions. They’ve included “Josh Pastner Wig Night,” for the Nov. 28 ACC-Big Ten Challenge game against Northwestern, “Level Up Night,” for the Jan. 10 tilt with Notre Dame, and this Sunday will continue with “Chris Bosh Replica Jersey Night.” (The first 2,000 fans will receive a jersey — double the normal number of jerseys given away).

The events are always in good taste, for example, there was “$2 Hot Dog Night,” on Jan. 18, when No. 2 Virginia came to town and, of course, the famous Krispy Kreme doughnut giveaway, when Pastner bought 100 dozen doughnuts for fans for last year’s Sunday afternoon NIT game against Belmont — that was in addition to buying tickets for the student section (unlike the regular season, students must pay for tickets to NIT games).

The Belmont promotion displayed a unique spur-of-the-moment, make-it-happen ability in the face of a multitude of complications. Georgia Tech had been expecting to go on the road to play at Georgia, which hosted and had been favored over Belmont. In addition, that Sunday was the first weekend of spring break, so students were sparse on campus.

“As soon as (Georgia) lost the game I got a text from Coach saying, `Hey, so what are we doing to make sure we’ve got a great student section? Do I need to buy the student tickets again? What do we need to do?'” Lewicki recalled. “That night I was sitting there trying to think. Doors were going to open at 11 on that Sunday and I was like, `Oh, man, it’s going to be tough for us to really draw.’ I thought, `You know, Krispy Kreme’s a sponsor. Coach, what if you paid for a bunch of Krispy Kreme doughnuts for everybody?’ No hesitation, he said, `Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen. What do you need from me?'”

That level of commitment to the fan experience began immediately.

“I met with Coach Pastner right after he got on board here and one of the things that was really important to him was getting the students involved,” Lewicki recalled. “He’s been very instrumental in helping us getting the student body involved. We’ve had really great student crowds throughout the year. Last year, of course, we had a number of really good student crowds, including that NIT run at the end of the year.”

“He’s really open to doing anything he can to help us on that front and really open to a number of different ideas,” he added. “Like the wig night for Northwestern was actually Coach Pastner’s idea. He told me to run with it. I told him not to cut his hair for a few months. It’s something that you don’t get from a lot of coaches around the country.”

Lewicki stressed that just about anything is fair game.

“In terms of promotions, if you told him it was going to help the program out, I think he’d be on board,” he said. “I think the one example he brought up was Bruce Pearl showed up with no shirt on, painted up at a Tennessee game back in the day. He said he didn’t know if he can paint out his chest but everything else would be fair game.”

It’s working.

Attendance is up, as the Jackets have gone from an average of 5,831 fans per home date in 2015-16, to 6,034 last season. They enter Sunday at 5,778 per game this season, but Sunday’s game with Clemson is a projected sellout, as is Duke (Feb. 11) and there’s a definite wave of momentum building for the other home dates. Should they sell out Syracuse (Jan. 31), the “Whiteout Game,” and Virginia Tech (Feb. 17), the Yellow Jackets would have five consecutive sellouts. That’s one more than the last two seasons combined.

Lewicki promised that the Jackets are prepared promotions-wise for the remaining five home games after Sunday — Syracuse, Duke, Virginia Tech, NC State (March 1) and Wake Forest (March 3).

“We have a fun `Whiteout’ T-shirt scheduled for Syracuse,” he said. “For Virginia Tech we have Iman Shumpert bobbleheads for the first 1,000 fans. For NC State we’re going to do an Isma’il Muhammad dunk poster of the iconic dunk he did against them in his playing days. Then for Wake Forest we’re going to do something for B.J. Elder because he went into the Georgia Tech Hall of Fame this year.”

Lewicki admitted he’s jazzed about the Syracuse “Whiteout” shirt, which will play off last year’s Pastner-Syracuse fan post-game brouhaha, which was a direct result of the fans at McCamish.

Of course, what comes next as far as promotions is anybody’s guess.

“We have a lot of creative people that work here at Georgia Tech and good ideas come from all over,” he said. “So the wig night, Coach Pastner had a lot of influence in that. Actually, `Level Up’ (Video Theme) Night came from a few folks over in our Ideation Group, kind of thinking about how we can make our starting lineup graphics. Our idea kind of came from nowhere and it was a really fun event for us to be a part of there. So ideas come from everywhere. We welcome them from everywhere.”

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