HARRISONBURG — On Friday, Nov. 14, the James Madison men’s and women’s basketball teams will play season-opening games at the Convocation Center against two big-time programs. The women – coming off a 29-6 season and their first NCAA tournament win since 1991 – will face UCLA, while the men will play Virginia, a Sweet 16 team from a year ago.
One slight problem: The games are six hours apart, with the women playing at 1 p.m. and the men at 7 p.m., meaning many people who want to watch the UCLA matchup will have to skip work or school.
“Is there anything more than ‘less than ideal’? Yeah, it’s less than ideal for us,” JMU women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks said Thursday. “I would much rather preferred a later start, obviously for our fan base, and when you have a team of that magnitude come in here, you want to put your best foot forward.”
Not only is the time inconvenient for most people, but so are the logistics for fans who might want to make a day of it by taking in both the women’s and men’s games. According to JMU, people will have to buy separate tickets, vacate the Convocation Center between games and move their cars to the appropriate lots.
Once Madison decided to treat the games as separate events rather than a nighttime doubleheader – meaning more ticket sales – the less-attractive women’s game got pushed to a matinee slot.
“For us to be able to fully accommodate both our season-ticket holders for the men and the women’s teams, it requires time for us to clear the arena,” JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said. “Logistically for us, our goal is to make sure we have the ebb-and-flow out of that facility that we’re able to manage it effectively. Once you take into account the game time and the time it takes to clear the arena and clean it up and get it ready for the next game, it will just take that amount of time.”
Bourne called the day a “trial” for future seasons. In 2011, the men and women played a doubleheader after Georgia State’s arrival for the men’s game was delayed due to a snowstorm. The women drew 2,793 fans for their game against Drexel, while the men drew 4,445 in the second game.
This time around, Madison expects a very rare sellout at the 7,156-seat Convo for the men’s game against Virginia, which hasn’t visited Harrisonburg since 1982.
“Ideally, it would be nice if we could’ve made those two games closer together,” Bourne said. “I would’ve preferred that we do that. We had the men’s games scheduled in there. Rather than trying to schedule them on separate days, there’s still value to playing them on the same day.”
Because of the Cavaliers’ stature, the men’s game is likely to be televised, another factor in scheduling it at night.
A doubleheader, Bourne said, would have put a strain on priority seating. Season-ticket holders accustomed to their regular seats might have ended up in less desirable spots for the university’s biggest home basketball game in years.
“The only other way you could do it is to open up the arena and say, ‘Well, for this game only, we’re going to do it a different way than we’ve ever done it,’” Bourne said. “We may have [had] to modify our priority seating and that’s not why folks have made contributions and done what they’ve done. They’ve done that in order to be assured of a seat location as well as parking. It’s doing right by the donors that have decided to purchase a ticket for an individual sport.”
The men’s team averaged 3,612 people at home games last season, while the women’s team averaged 3,072. While the women’s team won the Colonial Athletic Association championship, the men sputtered to an 11-20 finish.
Men’s basketball coach Matt Brady sees Nov. 14 as a big day for JMU basketball, even if the games aren’t back-to-back.
“Men’s and women’s doubleheaders, I don’t know that they happen much anymore,” said Brady, whose team lost 61-41 to U.Va. last season in Charlottesville. “I think that we’re going to both draw well and we’re both going to enjoy a day that is tremendously unique for JMU athletics. I think both of our programs will reap the benefits of great competition on the same day in the same building.”
Still, the 1 p.m. tip-off for the women’s game is a curious weekday start time for two teams that probably will challenge for NCAA tournament bids. James Madison beat the Bruins 77-67 last season in the Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Fla. UCLA finished the 2013-14 season a disappointing 13-18 overall and 7-11 in the Pac-12, but the Bruins did bring in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
Brooks would have preferred the game be played later in the day or even the following day, but UCLA’s schedule prohibits the latter option. The Bruins visit North Carolina on Sunday, making Friday the only option.
“The opportunity for the game was too much to pass up,” Brooks said. “UCLA contacted us and we played them last year, so we knew they were going to be a pretty good opponent.”
Brooks said he had no input in the time slot.
“I was not in favor of the 1 o’clock start time, but that’s what was presented to us,” Brooks said. “If I would’ve had my druthers, we would’ve backed up to the men’s game. I think it would’ve been a guaranteed sellout that way. With an opportunity to mix our fan bases, maybe you get crossover. Maybe someone who has men’s season tickets, if they only have men’s season tickets and they came to our game, they’d come to more games and vice versa.”
Bourne said he understands the criticism of the early start time for the women’s game.
“You struggle and you want to do the right thing by all groups, but on this one, given the conditions that we’re dealing with, this is the way to go for this one,” Bourne said.