Despite small crowds, arena a home away from home for Tech

Photo: Craig Cappy Georgia Tech's Metra Walthour (5) drives against Nebraska's Tear'a Laudermill (11) during Wednesday's game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Photo: Craig Cappy Georgia Tech's Metra Walthour (5) drives against Nebraska's Tear'a Laudermill (11) during Wednesday's game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

When Georgia Tech athletic officials made the decision to renovate Alexander Memorial Coliseum, they knew the process would force the school's men's and women's basketball teams to move their home games off campus for an entire season and it would create many challenges for both.

However, both teams have tried to make the most of their new, temporary homes -- one of which is the Arena at Gwinnett Center, which has played host to one-third of the Tech men's 15-game home schedule and will be the home of all but two of the women's 14-game home slate.

And while many of the challenges each team has faced playing away from Tech's midtown Atlanta campus remain -- like the lack of fan attendance at the Duluth venue -- many people associated with each program are overall pleased with the experience of playing at the arena so far.

"Obviously, it's not the ideal," said Tech women's coach MaChelle Joseph, whose Jackets (13-5, 3-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) welcome No. 5 nationally ranked Duke (14-2, 5-0) to the arena tonight at 7 p.m. "But it's the next best thing (to being on campus). The facility in Gwinnett has been first class, and the way they've treated us has been first class."

Life in Gwinnett has had some ups and downs -- more than just the trips on Interstate 85 -- for both Tech teams this season.

The men finished their limited schedule at the arena 4-1 -- the one loss was a disappointing 65-59 upset by Mercer -- before moving to Philips Arena a few blocks from campus for the remainder of the season.

The women have fared even better, going 6-1 at the arena so far, including their signature win of the season -- a 73-57 win over No. 20 Nebraska on Nov. 30.

Still, there have been plenty of adjustments necessarily from administrators, coaches, players and fans alike.

"For me, it's been a little different," said Metra Walthour, one of five seniors on the women's team. "We try not to look at the disadvantages and take it for what it is."

Perhaps the biggest adjustment may be playing in front of smaller crowds than each team has been used to.

The men averaged 2,605 fans for their five home games at The Arena at Gwinnett Center, far below the average of 6,878 that has shown up for Tech's three home games so far at Philips Arena.

The gatherings for the women's games at the arena have been even more intimate.

Technically, the Jackets have averaged 1,125 fans for the seven women's games so far, but that figure is skewed a bit by the 2,590 in the stands for the Nov. 11 season opener against Alabama State, which served as a doubleheader with the men's game against Florida A&M.

With that game taken out, the average goes down to 875 per game in the 11,355-season arena.

According to Theresa Wenzel, Tech's assistant director of athletics and senior woman administrator, the athletic department knew tickets to both men's and women's games would be tough to sell no matter where home games were held away from campus this season.

A near 30-mile trip up I-85 during rush-hour traffic was expected to cause a dramatic decline in attendance among Tech's student body, and with the arena booked with regular events -- particularly the ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators -- there were only four dates -- three for the women, plus the opening doubleheader -- available on weekends.

So the attendance figures at the arena, while small, aren't necessarily a disappointment.

"Our expectations were to develop new fans, knowing we were going to lose some with the students," Wenzel said. "But we've seen ... more kids, more families, more (high school and youth) teams, and that's cultivating future fans. We feel like exposing more fans to ACC basketball will help us in the future."

Wenzel said Tech will also try to be proactive in attempting to bring in more fans to the five games remaining at the arena this season.

For instance, tonight's game against Duke is the Jackets' annual "Pack the House" night, with tickets priced at $2 and other promotional giveaways planned.

There are also special events planned at other home games, including the Feb. 2 game against N.C. State, in conjunction with National Women and Girls in Sports Day, and the Feb. 19 game against Boston College, which will include a breast cancer awareness initiative.

"As a whole, the team and the coaches are very excited (about the rest of the season)," Wenzel said.