ATHENS - Georgia had just finished off a first-round NIT win two weeks ago as head coach Mark Fox was outside his locker room, waiting for postgame interviews to start. John Bateman, UGA's assistant athletic director for marketing, used the time to brief Fox on the fan turnout for the game.
"That was awesome," Fox told Bateman.
Technically official attendance for that win over Vermont was 3,951, among the lowest at Stegeman Coliseum this season. But that figure was a hard count of everyone who came through the turnstiles, unlike regular-season games, which counted season ticket holders and other prepaid tickets. More importantly, the general admission seating arrangement for the NIT resulted in two of Georgia's best home atmospheres this season, with fans packed close to the court.
“Our crowd was great, and we had great energy in the building these last two games. I mean terrific energy," Fox said after the second-round NIT loss to Louisiana Tech, which drew 3,692. "And establishing that homecourt energy is so important because it’s such an advantage."
Indeed, Georgia's athletics department is already at work to find a way to capture that energy and translate it to next season.
Prior to the NIT games, Georgia's attendance was actually up slightly this season. But it was still third-worst in the SEC, ahead of only Texas A&M and Auburn, and that was with Georgia fielding a team that tied for second in the SEC.
Obviously Fox's team could still do more, such as avoid the poor start the past two seasons that have dampened excitement early in the season. Georgia did sell out its second game this season, against Georgia Tech, which the Bulldogs lost on the way to a 1-4 start.
But athletics director Greg McGarity knows that in this day and age it's vital to find creative ways to draw fans.
“We’ve got a group of staff that are working on some options internally, on how we can capture that enthusiasm that was in Stegeman for those two NIT games," McGarity said Wednesday. "Is there some way that we can develop that general admission atmosphere. I’m not sure where that leads us. But we’re certainly going to look at it and see if there are some options we can do to kind of mirror that enthusiasm for this coming season. Because as everybody noticed it made a huge difference."
It's very unlikely that Georgia would go to a general admission policy for all games, especially for SEC games. It could cause grumbling from season-ticket holders, and there's always the danger of opposing fans getting there earlier and being the ones crowding the court.
But school officials are exploring some kind of combination approach that allows fans to improve their seating. McGarity pointed to the Louisiana Tech game, when Georgia fell behind by 26, but fans stuck around as the home team rallied to within four in the final minute.
"You saw a group in there that stuck behind our team, motivated them," McGarity said. "So that made a huge difference. Those two crowds, I’d probably say Ole Miss was pretty comparable to that. But everybody that was there saw what that type of atmosphere did to encourage our players and get everybody excited about the game.”
Fox said the decision crowds is up to others in the athletics department. But he was eager to be part of the discussion.
"We need to continue to build on that," he said.
No matter what, Georgia's attendance is likely to pick up next season just because of the home schedule.
Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee are each scheduled to visit Athens, according to McGarity. Georgia played those three teams, the only ones from the SEC to make the NCAAs this year, on the road. Arkansas and Missouri are also expected to come to Georgia, the athletics director said.
Colorado, which also made the NCAAs this year as an at-large team, is slated to come to Stegeman Coliseum at a date to be determined. Seton Hall is visiting in December. Fox said the remainder of the nonconference schedule remains a work in progress.
“We’ve got a little bit of work to do on it. Trying to manage some dates," Fox said, citing a two-week finals period in December. "We’re just trying to be really smart in where we place games. So we’ve got some work to do on it yet.”