Crowds 33 years in the making

Crowds+33+years+in+the+making

Jason Galloway

Alabama gymnastics head coach Sarah Patterson remembers standing on street corners, putting stickers on cars and spending hours greeting people at the mall.

All she wanted was to invite people to come watch her team compete on Friday nights.

“I learned that from [Tennessee women’s basketball coach] Pat Summitt years ago,” Patterson said. “She said, ‘If you’re not willing to market your program and work as hard to put people in the stands as you are to recruit and coach your team, then you deserve to compete in front of nobody.’

“I remember when she said that, and I have always taken that to heart.”

More than 30 years and four national championships later, Patterson’s team regularly draws 10,000-plus fans and has sold out the 15,075-seat Coleman Coliseum six times in the last five seasons. Her team drew nearly 1,000 more fans per meet last season than Summitt’s basketball program at Tennessee.

Alabama’s current fan support is a dramatic improvement from when Patterson and her husband, David, began coaching the Crimson Tide in the 1970s.

“In the beginning we had probably 50 people over in Foster [Auditorium],” Sarah Patterson said. “I vividly remember there being hardly anybody in there.”

It took less than 10 years before the gymnastics team was outgrowing Foster. In 1984, the Tide held half its home meets in Coleman Coliseum, opening half of the arena to fans while the other half was blocked off by a black curtain.

“It seemed like there was nobody in the Coliseum,” Patterson said. “You take two or three thousand fans and put them in the bottom, and it seems like nobody’s there.”

By the next season, all of Alabama’s home meets were held in the Coliseum, and it wasn’t long before the fans demanded that the black curtain be taken down. Once one side of Coleman began filling up, fan complaints of being too high in the arena began to circulate. So in 1992, the year after the Tide’s second national championship, the entire arena was opened up for gymnastics fans.

Patterson attributes the growth largely to advice from another peer, from the University of Utah, the only school that had a higher average attendance in any women’s sport than Alabama gymnastics did last season.

“He said, ‘Sarah, there are two ways to put people in the stands,’” Patterson said. “‘You win a championship and you host a championship.’”

After Alabama won its first title in 1988, it hosted championship meets in 1991 and 1996, winning the title both times.

“I think [high attendance] has a lot to do with Sarah and David’s success with the program,” junior Geralen Stack-Eaton said. “This is their 33rd year of being successful, and they didn’t always have this many people, so it definitely shows how far the program has come.”

Alabama should be expecting another big crowd tonight in the Coliseum, as No. 15 Boise State comes to Tuscaloosa for the Tide’s second home meet of the season.

And like always, the team treats its fans well. Giveaways at the meet include an iPad, eight iPod Shuffles, a 55-inch television, $50 gift certificates, T-shirts, Moe’s gift certificates and Dreamland Bar-B-Que baskets.

No. 11 Alabama (2-0) is coming off one of the biggest comebacks in school history. After being down a point and a half after the first rotation at Arkansas last week, the Tide rallied to beat the Razorbacks by .15.

Tonight’s meet against the Broncos begins at 7:30 p.m. Students receive free entry with their ACTion cards.