As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the world of collegiate sports back in March of 2020, one of the biggest changes was instantly noticeable: no fans in the stands. What seemed like only a short-term change suddenly became the new normal, lasting for well over a year and impacting Marist Athletics in ways that hadn’t previously been imaginable.
Take men’s basketball for example–the team and its coaches, who had become accustomed to playing in noisy environments, suddenly found themselves having to perform with the same level of intensity despite being able to hear a pin drop.
“It was just weird. You’re coming out and it has that closed-door scrimmage feel, but yet it’s a real game that counts in real standings,” said Marist men’s basketball head coach John Dunne.
Dunne emphasized that his team feeds off the energy of the home crowd, and he expressed appreciation for Marist fans after not being able to experience the benefits of their presence during the 2020-21 season. He cited his team’s ability to fend off VMI and stay in it until the final buzzer against Iona as examples of early-season home games in which the crowd helped the Red Foxes stay in the game when things could’ve gone awry.
His points were echoed by standout freshman guard Jao Ituka, who described the importance of receiving support from the Red Fox community now that fans are once again allowed into the building.
“It definitely did [fuel us] because having the fans out there just helped us feed off their energy, and every time we scored, when we heard them go crazy, we go crazy too,” said Ituka. “That atmosphere itself was something that we needed and something that we’re gonna continue needing throughout the season.”
The ramifications of having fans return have extended far beyond enhancing the game day environment at Marist. For teams such as the football team, being able to look up and see loved ones in the stands has taken on a whole new importance on the heels of having their entire 2020-21 season canceled due to the pandemic.
The long-awaited return of Red Fox football culminated in a record-breaking crowd of 6,154 people in the home opener against Bryant, with the game taking on a special meaning for head coach Jim Parady.
Parady, who has coached the football team for three decades, described the canceled season as one of the most difficult periods of his coaching career due to the impact it had on his outgoing seniors, while also expressing relief at finally being able to play in front of the team’s fans once again.
“To see the joy on [the fans’] faces too. And you know, they went through the journey with us,” said Parady. “And for them, as moms and dads and brothers and sisters, to be able to see their sons or siblings out there getting an opportunity that they worked so hard for, you could see how happy everybody was in the interactions with the crowd and in the people.”
Parady also shed light on how over 70 of the team’s 115 members had never before taken part in a home game due to the season being canceled the year prior, which only added to the anticipation being felt amongst the players and their families. The agonizing process of awaiting the home opener after having an early-season bye week also made the return of football at Marist even more satisfying.
“Building up to that first home game was something that you could just see in everybody, there was just an extra jump in everybody’s step, that we were finally gonna get a chance to step onto the field,” said Parady.
Aside from the human element of the fans’ return, there has also been a noticeable impact at the box office. With McCann Arena reopening at 70 percent capacity for the 2021-22 basketball season with masking and vaccination requirements in place, some season ticket holders chose not to renew their season tickets due to vaccination status or issues with the masking policy, according to Associate Athletic Director for Facilities and Operations Darren McCormack. Still, he has observed “brisk” sales at the McCann Arena Pro Shop and concession stand, both of which were shuttered last season.
Perhaps the best way to ensure that fans will continue to return in-person after a year away is through success on the court and on the field. Nobody knows this better than Coach Dunne, who stressed how important it is for his team to deliver a quality performance each and every time in front of their fans.
“You want to put on a good product and a good show for the fans too,” said Dunne. “They’re coming out, and you understand that they could just watch us on ESPN+ if they wanted to. But they’re coming here, they’re making the effort to get over here, so we owe them a really good effort and we don’t wanna let them down.”
Edited by Ricardo Martinez and Bridget Reilly