Midweek day games for kids should be on every college and pro schedule across the country at least once every year.
Season ticket holders, I don’t want to lose you before we get started. Although you may opt out of one particular game each season – and I don’t blame you – it may be the most important one on the calendar.
For those who don’t make the pilgrimage to their local arena for live action hoops on the regular, you might not be as familiar with what is actually going on during day games. Fans who have reached adult status and have caught one of these events know it’s an afternoon or late morning that will likely be a one and done. Attendees still working their way through grade school see it completely different. In fact, this getaway can be one of the few opportunities some kids ever get to do anything with classmates outside of the confines of school.
These trips are not just social outings or rewards for good behavior. Rather, the occasion is an enrichment opportunity that takes up most of a normal school or camp day. With each step, the kids are ushered through coordinated experiences with purpose. The way they traveled to the game, the food they were fed for lunch, how the game was played; each detail can become a lesson. To an educator’s delight, some lessons can be stretched across the next week or so with enthusiasm.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a day trip to Akron, Ohio, for a 10:30 a.m. tip-off between the Akron and Duquesne women’s basketball teams. Alongside my partner in hoops, Justin Meyer, I was among a crowd of 1,508 predominantly middle school students from the Akron Public Schools district taking it all in for the first time, too. Rebecca Falatok of Seiberling CLC K-6 played chaperone to dozens of fifth graders and was enthused to use the excitement as a way to engage the students with a learning opportunity on their terms.
“This might be the first time these kids have a chance to come to a game like this,” Falatok explained. “We ask them to please just watch the game. When we come back we will go through the questions in their packets. As a group activity, we talk about what they saw, why we warm up before a game, statistics, math, what we eat and if it’s healthy.”
You could feel the energy each fifth grader radiated as they trickled from the buses into a mass of organized chaos. They didn’t necessarily care who was playing, but they were given an escape from school that day, and they rewarded the rescue with endless cheers for the home team. In this case, it was the women of Akron receiving the love from a crowd that probably knew as much about them as the players new about their new fans.
Statistics, nutrition, exercise routines and transportation are just a few of the lessons that can be drawn from the day. Aside from disguising education in the cloak of a really fun time, it actually is a hype experience for the young crowd. This is the part that sends shivers down any grown person’s spine when recalling one of these games. The shrieking never stops. From the time the home team takes the court until the last bus leaves the lot, the decibel levels stay off the charts. More than one thousand high-pitched voices tried to bring the house down in the James A. Rhodes Arena in Akron, belting out semi-coordinated cheers for every last aspect of the game.
“We love Education Day, this one of my favorite days of the year,” Akron head coach Melissa Jackson reflected. “I think our marketing department did a phenomenal job of getting Akron Public Schools and the I Promise School here. It created an unbelievable atmosphere. They get an educational experience throughout the day and even a free lunch, so it’s something we’re excited to keep doing moving forward.”
The most special detail of the day came after the final buzzer. Although the Zips fell 88-63, all focus immediately turned to the tiny spectators. Each of the athletes quickly collected their emotions and took to the rows of the bleachers to sign every last outstretched item in the swarm of arms. As senior forward Haliegh Reinoehl tried to work her way to the tunnel after at least 20 minutes had passed, a chant of “number five, number five” came from the opposite corner of the gym. A deep exhale was followed by a smile and a search for a new pen to go scribble her name for another sea of middle schoolers. Reinoehl has been a backbone for the Zips the last four years, but I hope it’s not offensive to assume she probably doesn’t get crowds chanting for her autograph on a regular basis. That moment was immediately fulfilling for the kids, a chance to get another autograph on the poster, but it had to be a lasting memory for the senior from Westfield, Indiana, in the midst of her final collegiate campaign.
Camp Day games are a staple in the WNBA, and they play a massive part in guaranteed ticket sales through group blocks. It’s a fairly simple recipe: push a ton of tickets to summer camps and community centers, then bus in kids wearing matching shirts for a fun afternoon. Call it a win-win. So far, a number of G League teams joined the party with similar events this season. The Capital City Go-Go held their first of two Education Day games Dec. 3 to boosted results in ticket sales. Typically, the Go-Go welcome just above 400 folks per night. Their first Education Day hosted 805, one of only two contests with more than 500 in the stands this season.
In college basketball, Akron’s MAC rival, Kent State, held a similar Kids Day the afternoon before, also with spiked results in attendance. I’ve noticed them on the schedule for women’s programs like Villanova, Houston and Washington, too. But that’s not enough. For Division I programs and pro teams, traveling in the night before is the norm. This makes scheduling almost a non-factor and gets players on their way quicker. You may lose out on a core of fans who can’t sneak away from work or class during the day for the early start, but you welcome in a new wave of interest in your program. Even the programs with the largest draws can benefit from using exhibitions or unbalanced matchups to welcome in a new audience.
It’s honest game growing in action. You make a new fan, they make new memories and learn a thing or two.
Props to the WNBA, various universities and the G League for getting day games right. If you’re in the Oshkosh area, the Wisconsin Herd are hosting Field Trip Day on Jan. 16, as are the Magic in Lakeland, followed by events with the Salt Lake City Stars on Jan. 24, Erie Bayhakws on Feb. 4, Fort Wayne Mad Ants on Feb. 6, Agua Caliente Clippers on Feb. 11, Grand Rapids Drive on Feb. 25, Stockton Kings on Feb. 26, OKC Blue on March 4, Canton Charge on March 4, Westchester Knicks on March 19 and the Windy City Bulls have two of three left Feb. 20 and March 4. The WNBA’s Chicago Sky already announced Thursday, May 7, 2020 as School Day alongside the typical Camp Days to be announced by the league in early 2020.