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Utah gymnastics: Hostile arenas better than quiet ones for gymnasts

Published April 17, 2014 10:24 pm

Gymnasts say facing opposing fans is better than empty buildings.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

During the recent media teleconference for the gymnastics coaches whose teams are participating in the NCAA Championships, Alabama coach Sarah Patterson made sure to go out of her way to welcome teams to Alabama, noting it was the fifth time her state had hosted the nationals.

"I couldn't be prouder," she said.

Nor, probably, more excited about the chances of winning another national title since the Tide will be competing in a familiar setting.

Alabama won the SEC title in the same building a few weeks ago, and having several thousand screaming Alabama fans won't hurt this weekend either when the NCAAs begin Friday.

"The atmosphere there was electric at SECs, and it's only going to get better when all these schools come to the championship," Patterson said excitedly.

Other teams might not be quite so excited at the prospect of competing in front of thousands of Alabama fans, but loud fans cheering for an opposing team are better than competing in front of empty arenas, which is what some coaches fear could happen in the future as the NCAA continues to explore moving the championships to neutral sites.

Already it has been announced that Fort Worth will host the NCAA Gymnastics Championships in 2015 and 2016, and St. Louis will host them in 2017 and 2018.

The moves come partially because those cities bid to host the event and partially out of a willingness to see if the championships can thrive in a virtually neutral setting, much like the NCAA basketball tournaments.

However, many coaches, including Utah's Greg Marsden, don't like the idea of moving the championships away from collegiate campuses, even if it means one team has a decided advantage.

"I think people sit up and take notice if there are butts in the seats at your championships," he said. "My concern is moving it to neutral places makes it more difficult."

Gymnasts have come to expect competing in hostile environments in the postseason and look forward to the challenge, said Utah's Corrie Lothrop.

"We haven't competed in the SEC this year but we know what it's like and we compete in front of big crowds at home," she said. "It will be tough, but it makes it fun."

The last time the championships were held at a neutral site was in 2011, when a mere 4,573 fans watched the Super Six finals in Cleveland.

Such poor attendance was disheartening for teams such as Utah, which led the nation averaging 14,376 fans this year, and for programs in the SEC where crowds typically average closer to 8,000 or more.

"We want to have that energy there," said Florida coach Rhonda Faehn. "For our sport and for marketing and promotions, you want those seats filled."

Alabama's Patterson believes such an atmosphere could be fostered if the championships were held in a permanent location, such as the college softball (Oklahoma City) and baseball (Omaha, Neb.) world series are.

"You can build a crowd," she said. "But having it in a city where it can draw is important."

The championships in Fort Worth next year might be a good test case for such a format since Texas is well known for producing top gymnasts, a situation which creates a virtual automatic fan base.

But Marsden is hesitant such a situation could work, at least in the short term.

"It takes years to build a fan base," he said. "We are never going to be the most popular sport in terms of attendance, but what we have demonstrated on a number of college campuses you can build that interest and attendance."

To that end, perhaps this weekend's event or the 2012 nationals that were held in Duluth just outside of Athens, Ga., where the University of Georgia is located, is the best solution. Hold the event off campus, just not too far off.

"We know there is going to be great fan support there," said Stanford coach Kristen Smyth. "We have been there before and there is great fan support and it's a great arena. This is something I know our athletes will remember the rest of their lives."

But will they mind if those memories are to the tune of "Roll Tide Roll?" —

NCAA gymnastics championships

P Friday-Sunday, Birmingham, Ala.

Coverage • ESPN3; utahutes.com

Friday, noon MT • Georgia, Stanford, LSU, Oklahoma, Michigan, Illinois

Friday, 6 p.m. MT • Utah, Alabama, Florida, UCLA, Nebraska, Penn State

Saturday, 5 p.m. MT • Super Six

Sunday, 1 p.m. MT • Individual finals