Back by popular demand?
East Tennessee State’s basketball team is scheduled to play just three games at Freedom Hall Civic Center this season, but that could change very soon.
ETSU officials are looking into playing more games this season at the city-owned facility, maybe even moving there permanently. The first two games, wins over Samford and Stephen F. Austin, were so successful that the time table for a move could be moved up dramatically.
“That wasn’t in the plan, but if it’s the best result for the program, then we’ll certainly look at it,” ETSU Athletic Director Richard Sander said Tuesday from his home in Richmond, Va. “It was an experiment. We really hadn’t planned to do that. I think it has been a success.”
After Saturday’s 4 p.m. home game against Marshall, the third and final scheduled Freedom Hall game, the Bucs will have 13 home games remaining. No events are scheduled at Freedom Hall for any of those dates. A Dec. 16 meeting with Tusculum College would be the next home game, giving the school more than two weeks to pull off the move if it decides to do it immediately.
“We have to talk to the city and work out some logistics,” Sander said. “There should be a pretty big window of dates that would work.
“We need to talk to Coach (Murry) Bartow and see what his thoughts are and look into the logistics of that. We’ll get with the folks at Freedom Hall and see about the availability and work out the logistics.”
Bartow is already on the record as liking Freedom Hall.
“If you could fill this place, it would be an incredible venue,” he said after the Samford game. “It’s a great place to play basketball. We enjoy it and I think the guys really enjoy being here as well.”
The players have been effusive in their praise for Freedom Hall after the two games, and Sander said fan feedback has been about 85 percent positive.
“I’ll back anybody up who wants us to play here,” ETSU sophomore forward Lester Wilson said. “I like it a lot better. I hope they can make some things happen. I feel like we’ll get a lot more fan attendance if we come here. It’s 10 times more like a basketball arena.”
Sander said the athletic department sent out an e-mail to its season-ticket holders after the Samford game asking for suggestions. Three areas of concern were addressed before the Stephen F. Austin game, starting with the lighting on the court. Also addressed were the quality of the sound from the public address system in the upper deck and some seating issues with season-ticket holders.
“We took care of some negatives,” Sander said. “Is it perfect? No. But it is better. We learned a lot from the first game, we improved some things for the second game and hopefully the third game will be better.
“I knew it would be good. All you have to do is walk in and see it was built for basketball. The players really like it. It’s a basketball facility.”
The ETSU women played one game at Freedom Hall, and coach Brittney Ezell hopes for more.
“I like Freedom Hall,” said Ezell, whose team will play host to Alabama A&M on Friday at Brooks Gym. “I think it’s a great basketball venue. It’s an older facility, but with a little upgrade, it would be really cool to play there. There’s not a bad seat and it really has the ability of becoming a great home-court advantage. I think the fans enjoyed it and the opposing coaches were commenting that they liked it.”
The overhead scoreboard at Freedom Hall hasn’t been used for Bucs games because it isn’t compatible with ETSU’s electronics, brought over from the Minidome.
If ETSU does, indeed, decide to move this year, it wouldn’t be on a part-time basis. There’s too much work, including moving basketball goals and on-court LED signs, involved to make the switch too many times.
“To be honest, it’s a little bit of a logistical challenge,” Sander said. “If we do it, we’re gonna have to do it. It’s not like we can bounce back for a Thursday game at Freedom Hall and a Saturday game at the Dome.
“Difficult doesn’t bother me too much, but impractical does.”
Should ETSU decide to make the 39-year-old Freedom Hall its full-time home next season, some major changes would be in the works. The giant scoreboard hanging over the floor at the Dome and the actual court would be moved. The new lighting installed at the Mindidome last year would be brought in. Ideally, new seating would be installed and plenty of ETSU-related signage would adorn the walls.
“Clearly it’s an old building, and if we’re looking to move on a permanent basis, we’d have to make some changes,” Sander said. “With the success, we’d hope the powers that be see the value of investing some money to make that facility much more functional than it is right now.”
The Bucs’ current home, formerly known as Memorial Center, currently called the MSHA Athletic Center and commonly called the Minidome, was built in 1977 as a home for the school’s football team. Several configurations have been tried for basketball, but none ever seemed to satisfy the majority of the fan base or the basketball players themselves.
“I think ETSU’s done a wonderful job to make the Dome as good as it can be, but it just wasn’t built to play basketball,” Sander said. “Just the vastness of the Dome, you lose the intimacy that you would desire to have a great home-court advantage.”