As the final seconds ticked away in Duke’s loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64 last year, I stood in the stands of the Greensboro Coliseum in utter disbelief.
As I looked across the arena at the lone section of Lehigh fans—raucously celebrating a win that now defines their basketball program’s history—I realized that the pit in my stomach wasn’t just about the premature end to the Blue Devils’ season.
The loss was disappointing, but as a lifelong Duke fan, it wasn’t the first time I had watched the Blue Devils falter away from home. I saw my first loss in person back in 2007 when Pittsburgh’s Lavance Fields hit a circus 3-pointer with 0.2 seconds left in overtime to knock off the Blue Devils at Madison Square Garden. Earlier last year I was in my native Philadelphia watching Temple fans—many of whom were my high school classmates—storm the court in celebration of the Owls’ upset victory.
The Lehigh fans who celebrated that day were large in heart but not in numbers. Just a few rows of students made the trek all the way down from Bethlehem, Penn.—more than seven hours by car—to support their Mountain Hawks in a game most of them probably believed they would lose. But as my gaze shifted back to the Duke fans who made the 56-mile trip from Durham, I came to the startling realization that there was a similar amount of Blue Devil students sitting in the stands beside me.
During the course of my freshman year, I had grown accustomed to watching Duke basketball surrounded by 1,200 Cameron Crazies in Section 17, but as the Blue Devils’ season came to an abrupt end, I couldn’t help but feel alone. With one of the most dedicated student sections in the country, how could Duke struggle to muster up student support at an NCAA Tournament game that took place less than an hour from its backyard? The answer boils down to economics.
Although Duke students have the luxury of attending basketball games for free for the entire regular season, postseason play can be costly. Last year’s tickets to the Rounds of 64 and 32 cost $70 each. Students—even Duke students, despite the way people might generalize us—don’t always have $140 lying around to drop in one weekend. Transportation is also an issue—not all students have cars.
With the price of tickets rising to $85 per game this year and Duke’s first NCAA Tournament games being played in Philadelphia, these costs are only steeper. Duke’s alumni network is strong enough to have a Blue Devil contingency at nearly every NCAA Tournament site, but something can be said for bringing students along for the ride.
Universities across the country have found ways to accommodate dedicated basketball fans who want to travel to NCAA Tournament games. When 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast takes the court in Philadelphia just hours after Duke Friday, the game will be witnessed by 56 Eagles fans who rode 42 hours on a bus that was chartered by the university’s student government so that students could avoid costly airfare to watch their team compete in the Big Dance.
In 2008 when Davidson made an improbable run to the Elite 8, a $100,000 donation from the university’s Board of Trustees provided 300 students—which is one-sixth of Davidson’s student population—free travel, lodging and tickets to cheer their Wildcats on.
The size of Duke’s endowment and Athletic Department budget is enormous compared to that of Florida Gulf Coast or Davidson, yet the University has made no efforts to help students travel to NCAA Tournament games or to subsidize ticket costs.
Duke is a place with unbelievable resources in both academics and athletics, but someone needs to step up and take the lead. Whether it is the Iron Dukes, the Athletic Department, alumni, the Board of Trustees, DSG or the Inferno, groups within the University have the ability to make March Madness travel more accessible to all students.
After some of the Blue Devils’ most breathtaking home victories at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season, Duke players have said that the Cameron Crazies are the fuel that drives them to play at their highest level. So why isn’t the University trying to foster this and give some lucky students a once-in-a-lifetime experience?
So win or lose this March, one thing is certain—the Blue Devils shouldn’t have to walk off the court feeling like they went in alone.