No Fans, No Problem for YSU Basketball; Advertisers Still Show Support

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Lower level seating inside Beeghly Center remained folded in storage. The red chairback seats were unused during Youngstown State University men’s and women’s basketball in Horizon League regular-season games. 

Two large banners displaying Rise Pies and Southwoods Health dominate the view on the east side. Both advertisements are highly visible on ESPN3 [online access] and ESPN-plus telecasts behind both basketball teams and the scorer’s table where a handful of other YSU advertisers are displayed.

The Horizon League Board of Directors announced it prohibited fans during league games, which includes YSU, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Media members and game-day staff are allowed in league-wide venues with coaches, players and officials.

Rick Love is YSU’s associate director of athletics, overseeing marketing and promotions, ticket office operations and athletics communications. He “would prefer to have 5,000 people in the stands.” YSU will not have fans for Thursday’s Horizon League home tournament games for the men’s and women’s programs, which is effective for all rounds of the league’s postseason.

YSU senior Garrett Covington shoots during a mid-December game at Northern Kentucky University (Image: Northern Kentucky University)

Love remembers the 2018 Penguins football season as the Don Constantini Multimedia Center still was under construction on the east [visiting] side of Stambaugh Stadium with no access to those seats. Some large advertisement banners faced the home stands, covering some unused portions of the stadium. Those large ads eventually moved indoors to Beeghly Center.

The YSU men’s team was fourth in league attendance during the 2019-20 season, averaging more than 2,400 per contest.

“It helped defer some of our lost income, but it’s not going to defer having 1,000 fans in those red seats,” Love says. “It helps. Our partners like having it there. So hopefully this year is kind of a win-win for everybody.”

The Penguin Club members sit in those red reserved seats during home basketball games, ardent supporters of YSU athletic events. 

YSU contacted its booster club individually through phone calls, emails and letters, and Love emphasizes no one will lose the opportunity to repurchase their seats. Anyone who paid for their tickets in advance, Love says those patrons had a choice of a refund or rolling over their tickets to the 2021-22 season. He says 99% of them chose to roll over their tickets.

The Penguins men’s team, which boasts a 14-11 record, hosted four non-conference home games against NAIA opponents – the last of the four honoring the men’s seniors with most of their parents in attendance. The women’s team, which has a 9-7 mark, did not play any non-conference games. The team honored its seniors through a video montage prior to its regular-season finale. 

YSU allowed 300 people to those non-league men’s home games, which included coaches, teams, managers, families of student-athletes, cheerleaders and the Penguins pep band. Those remaining tickets were available for public consumption. The men’s team had 14 home games out of its 25 contests this season.

“For us to be able to get 25 men’s basketball games in is nothing short of a miracle,” Love says.

Love has been able to talk to most of the companies that advertise with YSU and offer them extra radio commercials or an extra spot on the streaming broadcast, he says, and there might be opportunities to appease advertisers during the football season. The Penguins’ four home football games span from Feb. 27 to March 27.

YSU freshman Nneka Obiazor drives toward the basket during a game against UIC. (Image: Robert Hayes)

He won’t be able to analyze the revenue losses until late April, seeing if the Penguins can get in all four home football games with the unpredictable Ohio weather, he notes.

Other lost income stems from special events, such as a sponsored kids day where children played on inflatable rentals – which are taboo during the pandemic – as well as football tailgating.

“We understand we’re probably going to lose maybe 40% of our income for the 2020-21 fiscal year for the university,” Love says. “Starting May 1, we’ll turn the page to next year and try to see how normal we’ll be next year. I can’t say we’ll be back to 100% capacity. A lot of what we do for this coming year is going to be driven by the virus and state mandates.”

Dan Gliot, Horizon League director of communications and digital media strategy, says the league does not disclose financial details, but adds “we have seen significant growth in support, including a title sponsorship for our basketball championships on ESPN broadcasts with Progressive Insurance.” 

YSU men’s basketball head coach Jerrod Calhoun, whose team hosts UIC Feb. 25 in a first-round Horizon League game, says his players on the sidelines generate support for those on the floor. Still, staff and players miss fans being at the Beeghly Center and “the energy you get from the crowd,” he says. 

YSU could not bring recruits to campus during the 2020-21 season. Calhoun says young adults are visual learners, which means potential players want to see where they will live and have classes, as well as view the locker rooms, arena and fan support at games. Calhoun and his staff could not showcase the many improvements on the Youngstown campus because of the pandemic. 

Additionally, college coaches cannot attend live high school games, which are limited to parents of those athletes. In turn, those high school athletes cannot attend YSU games as most people are seeing sports through a computer screen, smartphone or television, but rarely live.

“I think the most important thing is the kids are able to play during a global pandemic,” Calhoun says.

The YSU women’s team has the second-highest fan attendance in the Horizon League behind Green Bay, averaging almost 1,300 per game during the 2019-20 season. Green Bay drew more than 2,000 fans per home contest.

“To not have that, it’s definitely noticeable,” says YSU women’s head coach John Barnes, whose team hosts Purdue-Fort Wayne in a first-round Horizon League game on Feb. 27.

Ironically, not having fans at away games takes away that home-court advantage collegiate teams rely upon during the season. Barnes says it “definitely drew it closer to even when you’re on the road.” 

This YSU women’s team boasts two post players in senior Mary Dunn and freshman Nneka Obiazor, two of the better student-athletes in the conference. The Penguins are balanced by senior Chelsea Olson. All three received Horizon League postseason honors.

“We feel we can beat anybody in our conference, but we just have to play well,” Barnes says.

YSU senior Naz Bohannon drives toward the basket during a game against UIC. (Image: Robert Hayes)

Both teams had pauses to their programs because of positive COVID-19 tests in November and December. The women’s team didn’t start play until Jan. 1, playing at league games. The men began the season Dec. 9 with a limited non-conference schedule.

Upperclassmen Darius Quisenberry, Jamir Thomas, Greyson Kelley all suffered injuries throughout the season, forcing the YSU men’s team to play a majority of its freshmen. 

The men’s team is led by senior Naz Bohannon, who has surpassed 1,000 points and 26 rebounds shy of 1,000 in his YSU career – one of the best players in the Horizon League.

Senior Garrett Covington and freshman Shemar Rathan-Mayes, along with Bohannon, were postseason all-league selections.

Bohannon was the consistent factor for this YSU team which had little of that during this 2020-21 season.

“I think the world of him,” Calhoun says. “He had a remarkable season.”

Pictured at top: A pre-game view of the Youngstown State University women’s opener on Jan. 1 against Wright State University. (Image: Robert Hayes)

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.