This 3-part blog series was written by Matt Cranston, former Zags Kennel Club Prez (2019-2020). His blogs highlight his experience as a student at Gonzaga (part 1), what it's like to lead one of the best student sections (part 2) with a top basketball program and specific insights into the Kennel.
The Kennel has been continually voted as one of the top 5 toughest places to play in the country for Men’s CBB. The arena is tiny, it holds just over 5,000 spectators. But, over 1,200 of those spectators are students that eat, sleep, and bleed Gonzaga Basketball.
Now every game doesn’t reach full capacity, but for the ones that do... it is an experience.
The faces of the opponents the first time Zombie Nation comes on is very telling. For example, North Carolina played in the Kennel this year and when they saw our pregame ritual all their heads turned. They were rattled.
Mark Few claims that when the Kennel is in full force, our presence is worth about 7-8 points per game. Following the North Carolina game this past year, Roy Williams turned to the student section and praised us for the home-court advantage that we created in that contest. He even affirmed this saying in a Spokesman-Review article: “It’s a great college basketball atmosphere. The crowd was fantastic”.
I truly believe the Kennel is the best student section in the country when it is at full force because every student participates. It would be hard to find another group of 1,200 people on earth that can in unison be as loud for 40 minutes straight as Gonzaga Students during a prime game.
In-game, the leaders of the Kennel Club and the Cheerleading squad take turns to ensure that a new cheer is always ready for when the ball passes half court.
The in-game experience at a Gonzaga game vs a prime opponent is inexplicable. If you can go and watch the Kennel go to work, absolutely take advantage of it.
However, whether a student section is just starting out or has been established since 1984, both have their own unique problems and challenges.
The Kennel Club has been facing the same three challenges for a while now. The unfortunate part of all three of these challenges is that no matter how hard the student leaders express their opinions to the other associated parties that can help lead change, nothing gets done. From my experience, this is the most frustrating thing about being a student leader.
Hold on, didn't you just say that the Kennel Club is the “Best student section in the country?” No, I said it is when it is at full force, and that only happens 3-4 times a year now.
Towards the end of the first semester this past year we were getting a lot of backlash on both Social Media from alumni and mainstream Spokane media about how attendance had been declining.
It’s crazy to think about but a lot of the students don’t want to attend a Thursday night 8pm tip game against a team we will beat by 40, even if we are ranked #1 in the country. It’s almost like the team has become so successful that when we play tier 2/3/4 teams that aren’t named St. Mary’s or BYU, the students really don’t want a whole lot to do with it.
There is a fact that student attendance at athletics events across all Universities has been declining throughout the last few years. Maybe this has to do with how easy it is to stream the game from the comfort of your home or just watch highlights of it. There are many theories about why this is happening nationally. I don’t have the answer but I do know some part of why Gonzaga is experiencing it.
There are two factors that are Gonzaga specific that are affecting student attendance: academics and the way that tickets are distributed.
Gonzaga touts every year during Freshman Orientation that the incoming class is the smartest that the school has seen so far. This is great, it means that the University is becoming more selective and climbing up the rankings in something other than Men’s and Women’s Basketball. However, this affects student attendance at athletic events because the students that are being accepted are now more academically focused than ever. So, weekday games against non-rival conference opponents or D2 non-conference opponents are becoming an increasingly hard sell when students would rather spend time working on Academics than watch Corey Kispert and the squad smack University of Denver by 50.
The bigger factor, however, is the absolutely broken ticket distribution system. During my 4 years at Gonzaga, I constantly thought that this was a horrible way to pass out tickets. For those of you that don’t know how it works, the Sunday before the game(s) at 5pm athletics will open the doors to the arena and swipe students’ cards in a single file line. This means that, especially for prime games, the students will have to wait out all day to secure their spot in this line, since there is a limit of 1,200 tickets.
My first year, every single game sold out. But, as the years went on, students became tired of sitting through this process and now the only games that sell out on ticket distribution day are the prime ones. This entire process has discouraged students from even attending games. It’s too much of a time commitment in an instant gratification society.
While the Kennel Club Board has facilitated in the past and has some say in the process of this, at the end of the day it comes down to the ticketing office. Time after time, the past Presidents and I have expressed our displeasure with the process. Athletics returns our concerns with the “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” attitude, putting the blame of declining student attendance on other parties.
If Gonzaga wants to regain its student attendance at all games, it must evolve and grow. Online ticket distribution is the next logical step, saving both staff and student’s time. The Athletics department has grown stagnant because of its own success.
Our membership numbers have been declining over the past few years as well. While this might make sense because of the drop in overall student attendance, it goes beyond that.
Unlike most student sections, where you must buy a membership to gain access to all the events for the year, the Kennel Club does not operate that way.
You do NOT have to be a Kennel Club member to go to a Gonzaga Basketball game or any other athletic event.
Personally, I think this is backward. Most freshmen every year believe that you have to be a Kennel Club member to gain access to games, just based on the way it is marketed, and by the time they are sophomores they realize they don’t have to be.
The membership value thus comes through the apparel we make and events we put on. While some students still buy memberships, this number usually drops from about 1000 freshmen to 150 sophomores. That is a huge attrition rate.
In order to fix this membership decline and turnover issue, I believe that there needs to be more value added to the membership.
Gonzaga Athletics and the Kennel Club need to tie the membership to the entrance for all athletic events during the year. This would vastly increase the club’s budget creating more value in merchandise and events for members.
This is a challenge I believe that all student sections face. “Red Tape” means the restrictions put on the leaders by either athletics or the administration. It never goes away no matter how big or established your section becomes. Personally, I think it becomes more complicated.
Some background for you, the way that Kennel Club is organized from a club standpoint is that it is overseen by the club offices but works more directly with Athletics for actionable events during Home games.
This means that the same rules that apply to the Super Smash Bros club apply to the Kennel Club.
This is something that hinders a lot of what we can do as student leaders. I think that student sections should be afforded special privileges because they are not quite a club and are not fully part of Athletics. I think it should be something in between.
As student leader’s I think it is important to express this opinion to your administration, while the Kennel Club has gained some leniency over the past five years, there are still a lot of rules and regulations that hinder our ability to make the club the best it can be.
The Kennel Club faces challenges like other student sections face, we just have the history and establishment to make everything look okay on the surface.
I still think that the Kennel Club is one of the (if not the) best student sections in the Nation, it just needs to adapt to the times. I think the future is bright as the incoming President, Clare, has a great head on her shoulders and is ready to face any task or challenge that is thrown her way.
The purpose of these blogs was to give other leaders, like you, an insight into what a more established student section looks like and the challenges it faces. I hope I did that and fostered some creative innovation that can help improve your student section.
- Matt Cranston
If you have any questions about Matt’s experience or want to hear more about his experience leading a top student section, you can reach him at email@example.com
If you’re ready to scale your student section attendance, engagement, social media influence and revenue and need help executing strategies Matt discussed, schedule a strategy session.