UConn made the right call

Bridgeport

There is more complaining about UConn athletics in our state now than cheering, cacophonies of carping about donor-based seating, ticket prices, late start times, paying too much to park, too many games in Hartford, not enough games in Hartford, blah, blah, blah.

But this?

This was the old days again.

When the game was an event.

Energy.

Atmosphere.

Happy people in the stands treating the kids and coaches like rock stars. Bravo, Bridgeport. Hope to see you again real soon.

There isn't a tape measure big enough to gauge the distance of the home run that was The Bridgeport Experiment of 2013-14. Another full house showed up Saturday at Webster Bank Arena for the UConn women's 80-36 win over Temple. Men's game from last month: sellout. Women's game: sellout. Lots of new faces. Happy faces. Not just Lars and Lillian from Westport. Lots of kids. Families.

And now for the best part: Occupants in all of the arena's 56 luxury boxes.

Ah, yes. Money. Cheddar. Dead Presidents. Moolah. Simoleons. Call it whatever you'd like. This is its primary home: Fairfield County. Where backyards are turfed and even Jeeves wears Gucci.

And this, really, is the reason to play UConn games here.

Expose the brand to the area of the state where cultivating new fans and potential donors is pragmatic, productive and profitable.

UConn athletic director Warde Manuel, who spent a chunk of the men's and women's games here meeting new people, was asked after Saturday's game if a "straight line" could be drawn connecting two games in Bridgeport with a growing donor base from Fairfield County.

"A straight line? I think we could do a Figure 8, circle or a jagged line," he said. "We're not out in the stands walking up and down with a collection plate. We're not going around saying 'we brought the games here, donate to us.'

"However," Manuel said, "It delivers the message to our supporters and potential donors in this area that we see ourselves as being the state of Connecticut's team. And as we do that, we're going to reach out on our own and not just expect them to come to us."

Then Manuel paused, grinned and said, "But any dollars that you want you provide to us, we would love to have."

He laughed a gregarious laugh, the laugh of a man who just illustrated that the "Connecticut" across the jersey means Greenwich to Grosvenor Dale, Salisbury to Stonington.

A wise man at UConn was talking earlier last week about the four tenets of fundraising he learned a long time ago: identification, cultivation, solicitation and service.

Loosely translated: Figure out potential donors, cultivate a relationship, ask for the gift and then treat them accordingly.

Playing two games in Bridgeport just allowed UConn officials to engage in all four steps to varying levels of fans. It's huge.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma: "My feeling is the best place to play our games is at Gampel Pavilion. That's our home. But that being said, I'm all for exploring as many venues as possible.

"Those days of sitting around and waiting for everybody to come to you? They might be over. It's just as important for us to go to where they are. Explore new places, cultivate new fans. I think we did that today."

Indeed.

There were all new faces courtside, far different than what's normally seen at Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center. They sure sounded different, too.

"Sitting on the bench before the game, you could just feel the difference," Auriemma said. "You could just feel it. Almost that big game feel, even though the fans might not regard Temple that way. There's something to be said for going someplace where they don't see you very often and they're very appreciative.

"I was telling Warde I hope we can do this more often. Great environment, great building. The people are great."

Charlie Dowd, the arena's Senior Vice President for Operations, said during Saturday's game, "we'd like to have UConn here more."

Will it happen?

Inconclusive for the moment. But the winds are blowing that way. Imagine next season if the men played a nonleague game here against a New York-area opponent like Rutgers or St. John's? UConn would be a tough ticket again.

Metro North would rejoice. And the crowd and interest would further suggest that you bet your asphalt that the UConn Huskies can deliver the New York market, a message that wouldn't exactly hurt their chances during the next round of conference expansion.

To recap: The fans had a blast. The luxury boxes were full. The Huskies were rock stars. The coffers won't have less in them moving forward.

A good day for UConn.

And Connecticut.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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