The rhythmic clapping cascaded from the upper levels to the floor of the Stan Sheriff Center and the shouts of “Let’s Go, ‘Bows” boomed throughout.
From the deafening sound of things, you’d have never known that the longest streak of sets won in NCAA men’s volleyball had just expired for the University of Hawaii at 74 in the third set against UC Santa Barbara on Saturday night.
But if the Rainbow Warriors were down even slightly after losing their first set of the season, the sellout crowd, the first in 22 years, would not let them linger there long. If there was momentary disappointment, the white-clad faithful would not allow a prolonged letdown on the teraflex. Not on this night of all nights. Not for this team.
The crowd of 9,402 — and it was hard to spot many pukas in the place — that had come to pay tribute to the nation’s No. 1-ranked team cranked up the high-decibel support as if on cue.
And the still-undefeated ‘Bows responded to put away the feisty Gauchos for their overall 25th victory of the season and eighth in the Big West Conference, 25-16, 25-21, 23-25, 25-19.
“They (the fans) were so into it and I was impressed with that,” said middle blocker Max Rosenfeld. “They had our backs all night and we had to use that to our advantage.”
In a post-game “thank you” the ‘Bows offered their version of the ha’a.
“For us this was a special night,” said setter Joe Worsley. “It was good for us to be challenged. It just showed how resilient this team is.”
With an average count of 4,609 fans (tickets issued) over 14 home appearances so far this season, what UH — and the ‘Bows’ growing legion of fans — is doing this year is forcing a redefinition of the term “crowd” for men’s volleyball. And adding to the athletic department bottom line in a big way. Saturday night’s sellout was estimated to be worth approximately $75,000 in ticket revenue, and as much as $55,000 in the department’s cut of the concessions.
In a division of the sport where you can rank in the top 10 nationally while averaging fewer than 700 fans per match, the ‘Bows, who might have more than that in the pregame hot dog lines, are back to setting a higher attendance standard.
“Most NCAA Division I-II men’s volleyball teams would consider it a marketing success and a huge fan turnout if, for a single match, they had (the) same amount of fans in their entire arena that Hawaii is able to get in just two sections of the Stan Sheriff Center,” Vinnie Lopes, author of “Off the Block,” a national blog on collegiate men’s volleyball, said in an email.
“UCLA, BYU, Long Beach State and UC Irvine are drawing well, but nobody can touch Hawaii, not with what they are doing this year,” said Dennis Farrell, commissioner of the Big West Conference.
With Saturday night’s sellout against UC Santa Barbara and Friday night’s previous season high, 6,969, against the Gauchos, the ‘Bows are on their way to hitting a 15-year average attendance high.
The final numbers will depend on the turnout for UH’s matches in the Big West Championship Tournament (April 18-20), which the ‘Bows will be allowed to count since they take place on the home floor, a spokesman said.
The betting is that not since 2004, when UH drew an average of 5,052, will the ‘Bows have played before more consistently heavily packed gatherings on the home floor.
UH hit its all-time high, 7,932, in 1997 — the last time it had a home sellout before Saturday night. That was a season of Jason Ring and Aaron Wilton on the floor, one year removed from the Yuval Katz era (1995-‘96).
But that was a far different time. Most people used dial-up internet connections, Google was not yet around and TBS was the “Superstation.”
Fans had few digital distractions. UH football, despite five consecutive non-winning seasons, was still drawing nearly 30,000 a game at Aloha Stadium. Men’s basketball was pulling in more than 6,000 a night.
Today, while attendance is dropping across several platforms nationally, the ‘Bows are bucking the trend with their revival. It is testament to putting an exciting, winning product on the floor for a discerning audience. “There is a great buzz on campus, it is nice to have that going, again,” said associate athletic director Vince Baldemor.
“Everyone on the mainland knows the amazing support that the Rainbow Warriors receive,” Lopes said. “For the college men’s volleyball fans on the mainland, we think of two things when it comes to Hawaii home matches: Huge crowds and drinking coffee, because it’s a super late match that is a must-watch event.”
But nobody watches it in the numbers or with the passion they do at the Stan Sheriff Center. And Saturday night was the latest reaffirmation of that.