Dave Hickman: Catering to fans; Phillip’s issues

MORGANTOWN — Cleaning out a crowded notebook and a cluttered mind:

In case you hadn’t noticed, there seems to be a changing attitude within West Virginia University’s athletic department.

It’s not all that subtle, either.

Call it an attempt to reconnect with the fan base if you will. WVU officials insist it isn’t some concerted effort, but still the signs are everywhere.

n Opening spring football practices to the public and moving them around the state.

n Taking a huge chunk of all that extra Big 12 cash — $106 million — and spending nearly all of it to improve not the programs themselves (although that’s certainly a byproduct), but the facilities in which they play. The planned renovations to both the football stadium and the basketball arena are almost entirely aimed at fan enjoyment.

n Baseball is back in Morgantown with all sorts of promotions attached, from kids running the bases to family-day specials.

n Shoot, there’s even Dana Holgorsen’s wardrobe, now tilting toward blue instead of black.

The reason for what seems to be an attempted reconnect is obvious, although largely unstated. The changes in WVU athletics over the course of the past three years have been dramatic, and many have not set well with the fan base. The move to the Big 12, beer sales, increased parking fees and ticket prices, staff changes — all of those and more have been greeted with great angst in many quarters.

And, of course, there is the relative nosedive in results taken by two major sports. The football team has lost 14 of its last 20 games. In late January of 2012, the basketball team was 15-5 and drew more than 14,000 for a game with Cincinnati. Since then the program is 34-44 and attendance has been woeful.

The latest attempt to make amends is something the school calls a “fan experience committee.’’ The committee will consist of 12 to 15 members, including “fans, faculty and students, season-ticket holders, corporate partners and university administration.’’ The group will meet twice in the coming months.

“Sometimes you have to encourage dialogue,’’ WVU athletic director Oliver Luck said Monday. “This is just an attempt let people know that we’re not infallible. If there are things that people think we need to change, we want to give them an opportunity to let us know.’’

Luck dismissed the notion that all of these recent changes are some kind of grand and collaborative effort on the part of the department to address a disgruntled fan base regarding the changes that have taken place in recent years. But if those attempts succeed in doing that to some degree, well, that’s fine, too.

“The fact is everybody in the country is looking to figure out how to develop a better fan experience, and we’re no different,’’ Luck said. “We did it when I was with Major League Soccer and with the NFL. Major League Baseball is doing it.’’

Indeed, when fans can stay at home or go to a bar and watch athletic events on giant flat-screen TVs with replay and analysis, why spend the money and the time to fight crowds for a sub-par experience at the venue? Enhancing the experience for the fans who do pay big-ticket prices and fight those crowds is essential.

As for that fan committee, I’m not quite sure how fans will be chosen or how much value will be placed on their opinions (you can apply at wvusports.com/fan-experience-committee-form.cfm), but based on the other recent changes it might be worth your while if you have something to say.

Apparently the school is listening.

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Let’s not simply gloss over the fact that the most recent addition to West Virginia’s basketball team comes with some legal baggage. After all, Tarik Phillip isn’t the first with issues to wind up in Morgantown, and chances are he won’t be the last.

But at the same time, let’s not make more out of it than is there.

Phillip, it turns out, is kind of wanted in North Carolina, if you can call a 2-year-old case of taking someone’s cell phone and then giving it back cause for alarm. The case was apparently closed by the police there and pretty much forgotten about, except that Phillip was supposed to show up to dispense with the charges and never did. No one ever came looking for him.

WVU coach Bob Huggins was apparently caught unaware of the incident, but when it was discovered he found out that the resolution was pretty much paying a fine and Phillip either making an appearance in court or having an attorney do so. Beyond that, there’s not much meat on the bone.

True, it would be nice if all of West Virginia’s players were free of such issues, but that isn’t the world in which we live. It might be better to get worked up over some really serious allegations, though. This doesn’t seem to be one of those.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

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