“My fellow students, have you been to the Palestra recently?”
So asks former Penn basketball guard Rob Belcore in a Penn Athletics video from Oct. 2011 promoting The Line, the traditional overnight stay in the Palestra and the only way to guarantee season tickets in the student section.
Fellow former teammate Zack Rosen’s answer:
“We didn’t think so.”
The video was part of a last-ditch effort by Penn Athletics to encourage a higher turnout at The Line as a Penn Athletics-organized event. That year’s Line featured Penn’s attempt at a World Record knockout game, dodgeball, eating contests and a chance to meet the Penn men’s and women’s basketball teams in person.
None of it mattered. After the hundreds had steadily dwindled in attendance for years, The Line hit rock bottom, attracting around just 50 students to the Palestra sleepover according to several of that year’s student attendees. The futility of The Line had finally become too embarrassing, frustrating athletics administrators, fans and players alike. The Daily Pennsylvanian even called for Penn Athletics to end the tradition, which goes back more than 40 years.
Instead, Penn Athletics subbed itself out, letting The Line become a Red and Blue Crew-run initiative with Penn Athletics’ support.
And so for the second consecutive season, the Red and Blue Crew has taken the lead in planning Penn basketball’s tip-off event, which will be held Saturday at the Palestra, with seat selection starting at noon for those students who have pre-ordered season tickets and any student walkups. Season tickets include reserved seats for all men’s basketball home games and free pizza at the Select-A-Seat Event at the Palestra at noon.
But free pizza at The Line has left a bad taste in Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky’s mouth for nearly his entire 19-year tenure here. Bilsky told The DP that he had been considering phasing out Penn Athletics’ ownership of the tradition since 1994, when he remembers nearly 800 people sleeping over at the Palestra.
“We did it in the Palestra, that was the first time we brought it indoors, the entire concourses were filled,” Bilsky said. “I was so impressed, I bought pizzas for everybody as a thank you. We ate it around 2:00 in the morning. Probably three years after that, people complained that the pizza was cold. That was the first time I started thinking maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
“I thought that pizza would work well, considering that they didn’t have anything to eat. And then after that, [they said] it wasn’t hot enough. Now you tell me what that means and I’ll tell you how to fix The Line.”
Red and Blue Crew President Jonathan Cousins has tried, advising Penn Athletics to reward Line attendees with free season tickets. But Bilsky has insisted to The DP on multiple occasions that basketball tickets must be given a dollar value if they are to be valued by students in return.
“Every other sport on this campus has free tickets for students, but beyond that I feel like anyone on this campus willing to take time out of their schedule to commit to the basketball team should be rewarded,” Cousins said. “I have considered many structures for this proposal, including forcing students to attend a minimum number of games to get the free tickets, but Penn Athletics has been adamantly against the idea.”
The Line’s attendance recovered slightly last season, rising by roughly 50 students while dealing with what Cousins calls “a few logistical issues.”
“Students were waiting in line for quite a while to actually purchase tickets even after waiting to get into the Palestra, which is something we are striving to avoid this year,” Cousins said. “We also didn’t really have engagement with the students who attended.”
Cousins hopes The Line will stay above triple digits in student attendance even after Penn basketball posted a disappointing record of 9-22 last season.
“I really believe that the lack of success over the past few years has resulted in the waning student interest,” Cousins said. “I think if we had won the Ivy League three of the past five years, attendance would still be where it was five or six years ago. But the fact that we are now in one of the longest title droughts of Penn’s history really does take interest away. But I think if we are in contention this season, students will come back.”
This title drought has seen plenty of concessions already made to The Line. General admission for students was introduced for the 2009-10 season after student season ticket holders picked a specific seat at the Palestra on a more first-come, first-serve basis, with seat choices being made according to one’s spot at The Line. And the pre-sale price of student season tickets fell to $38 this year after costing $50 last year. The ticket still has value, but it’s dropping.
“It’s not the so-called, ‘You need to do better marketing,’” Bilsky said. “That isn’t the answer. Because when The Line started, there was no marketing. No departments had marketing back then, it was self-generated.”
Now it’s up to students to maintain a tradition struggling to attract students. Bilsky and Cousins both believe that the right combination of marketing and winning will make The Line longer in length and stronger in spirit – in time.
“I feel there will always be at least some demand for season tickets, and that will create a ‘Line,’ no matter what you call it,” Cousins said. “But it’s a gradual process.”
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