5,500 strong: Wichita State basketball’s traveling fan base swells

Wichita State fans cheer on the Shockers during the MVC Tournament in St. Louis on Friday.
Wichita State fans cheer on the Shockers during the MVC Tournament in St. Louis on Friday. The Wichita Eagle

Shocker men’s basketball fans have always traveled well to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament – so much so that long timers have a nickname for the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

“We’ve always called it Charles Koch Arena east,” said Debbie Kennedy, the president of the Wichita Alumni Association, whose organizes travel and activities for fans.

This year, that’s more true than ever. Bolstered by last season’s Final Four appearance and this season’s undefeated regular season run, the Shockers were able to draw big numbers of fans to Friday’s opening-round win over Evansville.

An estimated 5,500 fans were there on Friday, said Larry Rankin, WSU’s assistant athletic director for media relations. That’s about 1,000 more than usually attend first-round games, he said, and the biggest crowd he can ever remember attending a quarterfinal game.

And there are likely more on the way.

“I’m sure there will be more coming tomorrow since it’s a Saturday,” he said after Friday’s game.

The Shocker fans filled 19,000-seat Scottrade Center with an obvious and overpowering black-and-yellow presence on Friday. The entire southeast corner of the arena was filled with Shocker fans, some sitting all the way in the very top level of nosebleeds.

But the Shocker colors weren’t limited to that area of seats, which were distributed by WSU. (The University sold 2,922 seats to the tournament, up from 1,211 last year and 1,449 the year before.)

Large blocks of Shockers were easy to spot in every section, some brightening up much smaller groups of maroon-decked Southern Illinois fans, some tucked into bright red swaths of Illinois State Redbirds supporters.

The Shocker fan dominance was so extreme, you needed only your ears to follow along with the game. A loud roar meant the Shockers just did something fabulous. A barely audible round of clapping meant that Evansville’s small section of fans – and their underdog supporters from other conference schools – liked what they were seeing.

Head coach Gregg Marshall talked about his team’s “unbelievable fan base” during the post-game news conference, noting that Shocker fans even turned out in large, loud numbers for Thursday’s night’s play-in games to see who the Shocker’s would face on Friday.

“And I’m sure there are people in their cars right now driving to get here for tomorrow,” he said Friday. “These fans are unbelievable, and they deserve this type of run we’ve had because they’ve been there.”

Patrick Pirtle, a WSU senior and regular Missouri Valley Tournament attendee, was at Friday’s game and said the increased fan base this year was obvious.

“You can definitely tell a big difference from last year to this year,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of Creighton leaving the Valley and us having a good season. A lot more people want to make the trip.”

Pirtle said that he described the game to his brother as a “giant who’s who of Wichita.” And it was. The crowd was filled with well-known Wichitans, from WSU higherups such as president John Bardo and WSU foundation president Elizabeth King to county commissioner Tim Norton and state senator Carolyn McGinn.

The crowd also was full of season ticket holders, WSU students and fans happy to admit that they’ve become fans in the past 12 months.

Wichitan Steve Yager has been a season ticket holder for 15 years but said he “had no desire” to travel to the Valley tournament – until this year.

He enjoyed the regular season so much, he didn’t want it to end, he said, explaining: “I wasn’t done seeing them.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle