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Will fee fill seats?

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For all the contentious finger pointing and philosophic divides, one point both sides in the University of Hawaii student athletic fee debate agree on is that few Manoa students currently attend the school’s sports events.

UH has estimated that only 1,700 to 1,800 of its students attend football games at Aloha Stadium and fewer than 200 show up for arena sports.

Whether significantly more of them will take advantage of the new mandatory $50-per-semester student athletic fee to attend sports events is a bone of contention.

On one hand, Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach Dave Shoji passionately told the regents, "I’m hoping this measure passes because it will really increase our support from the student body.

"I can see people in the dorm with nothing to do on a Saturday night say, ‘Hey, let’s go down and watch a game,’" he said.

On the other, Associated Students of UH president Andrew K. Itsuno said, "It depends on the benefits the students will receive. If you look at the seating chart right now, it is quite laughable. The seats that are being allocated are in the end zone (in football) or where no one would sit anyway. The students, they wouldn’t sit there even if they were paid to sit there.

"So, I feel, unless the administration and students work together to be able to find better seats for students, better benefits, I don’t think the attendance right now is going to change," he said.

UH, with an undergraduate enrollment of 13,583 and overall enrollment of about 20,000, was the last school in the nine-member Western Athletic Conference to impose an athletic fee.

Boise State, with an undergraduate enrollment of 16,693, averages 4,920 at its football games and 340 at men’s basketball, a spokesman said. Utah State, with 21,680 undergrads, averages 3,000 at football and 3,150 at men’s basketball, a spokeswoman said.

Among UH’s points in getting the Board of Regents to approve the athletic fee Thursday was that, in addition to budget relief, it would give its teams more of a home advantage while providing students with a "true college experience."

"Selfishly, we need the student body to come out and support us," the 63-year-old Shoji said. "We lead the nation in attendance, and we average over 5,000 — and close to 6,000 — every game. But what is really missing (at) our games is the students. We may have 50-100 come to each game — and 5,000 other people.

"The majority of our season-ticket holders are people of my generation and a little bit older. (They do) not get real loud and raucous."

Shoji added, "What (more students) would mean is that it would make it difficult for other people to play here, which leads to winning. We want to win for you. We want to win for the students, and we want to win for the state."

In the early 1980s, the "Bowzos" — a student group made up largely of UH swimmers — brought spirit to volleyball events at Klum Gym. And Gumby-like football player Alan Hackbarth was a crowd favorite at the Stan Sheriff Center.

For their new mandatory $50-per-semester fee, students will receive admission to home UH athletic events by showing their ID card. The athletic department said it will make 5,000 seats available at Aloha Stadium, 515 at the Sheriff Center and 225 at Les Murakami Stadium.

Athletic director Jim Donovan said those will not be "hard" numbers and his department will consider increasing them if student interest dictates, based upon availability.

For a football game that figures to sell out, Donovan said it would be difficult for the department to allocate additional seats for students. But if a sellout isn’t projected, and 6,000 or more students show up, "we’d probably wave them in and hope they enjoy themselves."

Itsuno and Donovan said both sides hope to meet soon to begin working out the details of the seating plans and other elements of the plan.

Where students sit has long been a bone of contention, going back to the early 1980s, when students and faculty enjoyed an allotment of 12,500 seats at Aloha Stadium.

Students, for a fee, were allowed to purchase a season ticket for themselves and, for an additional $20, a guest ticket. But when the guest price went up to $56 in 1981 students balked at paying the higher charge.

In addition, an increasing demand from donors and sponsors for tickets in prime areas prompted the department to take them out of the unsold student-faculty allotments.

In 1990, some of the student section, which was spread across the 30- and 40-yard lines, was relocated closer to the north end zone.

Currently, many of the seats set aside for students are in an area from the 15-yard line on the mauka side to the north end zone. Student season-ticket purchases have often totaled less than 1,000, including about 600 in the Manoa Maniacs section.

In recent years, UH has sought to increase student attendance with the formation of the Manoa Maniacs group and promotions such as sales of all-sports admission cards, free transportation and t-shirts.

As a "show of good faith" with passage of the athletic fee, Donovan said UH hopes to begin making seats available to students from the second home football game Sept. 25 against Charleston Southern even though it will not begin receive student fee proceeds until January 2011.

"The Charleston game is our goal," Donovan said. "We’ll work with the student athletic fee committee on that. It will be a student-led committee (and) I think they will agree."

Donovan said implementing it for the Sept. 2 opener against marquee opponent Southern California "would be too much of a challenge.

"To try to do something new where you have contiguous sections with an ID card and try to do that on top of a USC crowd coming in and it is the first game of the year on Labor Day weekend, it just seemed a lot better to shoot for the second game."

Even then, UH will have to work on accommodating an expanded student area when some seats may already be taken by season-ticket holders.

"There may be some season-ticket holders that will be impacted," Donovan acknowledged. "And we will look at how we can move them. We’ll come up with some ideas on how we can make that move easier for them from an economic standpoint.

"It will help create a better environment for our student-athletes with having the students down here by just showing their ID to get in," he said. "And I think the experiences that more and more students will have over time will help the university out for many decades to come with greater philanthropy."


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