The website WalletHub.com crunched the numbers earlier this year to determine a list of the “Best & Worst Cities for College Basketball Fans in 2017.” North Carolina has three cities in the top 10. Chapel Hill at No. 1 and Durham at No. 3 probably wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. The No. 10 pick may – Cullowhee.
The unincorporated Jackson County community is home to Western Carolina University – and men’s and women’s basketball teams that combined last season to win only 17 of their 62 games. So how did Cullowhee score a Top 10 ranking?
WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzales said that factors beyond wins and losses are taken into account when identifying the top cities for college basketball fans. “Western Carolina has about a 50 percent win percentage over the last three seasons. Not the best, but certainly better than almost 150 teams analyzed in the 30th or 40th percentile,” Gonzales said.
“The team has a large social media following relative to the size of the school/town, which certainly helps. It also has the ability to fit a large chunk of its student population into its arena, something that Cameron Indoor certainly can’t boast,” she said. “As Cullowhee exemplifies, teams with decent play and followings can certainly climb to the top, as well.”
Chad Gerrety, WCU associate athletics director for external affairs, conceded the school was surprised by the ranking, but said the athletics department strives to make each game in Cullowhee as fan-friendly as possible.
“We appreciate it, and the ranking did surprise us, especially when you see the size schools and cities we are ranked with. We would be glad to have a team like Kentucky or Duke come experience our atmosphere,” Gerrety said. “Seriously, several people in our athletics department in various jobs worked hard to make sure basketball is fun for students and families. It doesn’t cost an arm and leg, and things like parking are free. We’ve worked hard to put an emphasis on the atmosphere and making it the best it can be.”
Along with the atmosphere at games, WCU athletics has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter (@Catamounts) and more than 31,000 followers on Facebook. Gerrety said WCU’s marketing and ticket operations offices target group sales and halftime acts to provide entertainment at games at the 7,826-seat Ramsey Center.
He also credited a committee of students, administrators and others that was formed after the 2015-16 season to explore ways to enhance the fan experience. “It really helped us take some steps in the right direction,” Gerrety said. “Among the things we heard was people would like a few Saturday night games. Their kids had activities in the day on Saturday and they wanted the chance to come at night. We worked that in, and it was successful. We’ve got more to do from the committee’s suggestions, but it was good to hear those ideas and listen to what was being said.”
The effort has helped with the fan experience, said Jackson County resident Michael Forbis ’02. “My mom and dad go to almost every game, and they take our boys a lot. The ushers are always friendly, and they greet us by name they see us so often. It is great to have something like this in a rural community to help expose your kids to a bigger picture and not just be at home playing video games,” Forbis said.
“If you were going to do this in a larger city the cost could be 10 times higher, especially with things like the Catamount Kids Club that offer discounts on tickets to kids for joining,” he said. “Western in general is a great place to take in events that are not tremendously expensive, especially for young families.”
Students enjoy the basketball opportunities, too. “It is definitely nice to have these type of events on campus,” said WCU student Kendra Graham. “The friends I’ve made here at WCU and I try to experience new things like the basketball games and sporting events, so it is fun to experience those together as part of being in college.”
Reprinted in edited format with permission
of the Asheville Citizen-Times
HOW CULLOWHEE BECAME A 10
WalletHub analysts looked at 291 U.S. cities that have at least one NCAA
Division I basketball team and used seven metrics on which to base its rankings:
* number of Division I basketball teams
* performance level of team(s) during the past three seasons
* number of Division I championship wins
* number of regular-season championships
* minimum season ticket price
* fan engagement (number of Twitter followers, Facebook likes, per capita)
* stadium capacity
WALLETHUB’S TOP 10
1. Chapel Hill
2. Los Angeles
4. Bloomington, Indiana
6. East Lansing, Michigan
7. Lawrence, Kansas
8. Lexington, Kentucky
9. Storrs, Connecticut