As my friend and I were driving by campus last week, we were in a nostalgic mood, one common among college seniors. We were talking about “USC bucket list” items that we wanted to cross off in our last year as undergrads.
As we drove south on Figueroa past the Galen Center, my buddy laughed and said, “That’s one place I’ve never set foot in. I should probably go there at least once.”
When I heard that, it seemed pretty unbelievable. As a former beat writer for both USC’s men’s and women’s basketball teams as well as the women’s volleyball team, I have visited the Galen Center many times, both for games and practices.
The very first home volleyball game I attended as a beat writer in the spring of 2012 drew 5,385 fans — the most ever to attend a women’s volleyball match in the six-year history of the Galen Center.
But the more I thought about it, I remembered the struggles the teams that call Galen Center home have had in drawing enthusiastic supporters.
In February 2011, the women’s basketball team played an afternoon game against UCLA that I was covering as the Women of Troy’s beat writer. The Galen Center was quite a sight to behold — USC’s student section held no more than 10 students, while UCLA had brought over at least 40 students in powder blue to cheer their team on. Part of the lack of interest for that particular day could be explained by the fact that it was Super Bowl Sunday — but that made the Bruins’ show of support even more impressive.
UCLA won that game 74-67 and went on to earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. USC hovered on the bubble to make the tournament all season long but ended up being relegated to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, where they streaked all the way to the championship game. If the Women of Troy had been able to snatch a few more regular season wins riding the support of a rowdy hometown crowd, who knows what could have happened? Maybe former coach Michael Cooper would still be employed by USC.
Of course, a buzzing crowd doesn’t always automatically bring success — in that aforementioned volleyball matchup, the first-ever Pac-12 volleyball game, the record crowd didn’t seem to positively affect the No. 9-ranked Women of Troy as they were handily swept by No. 8 UCLA.
In USC’s subsequent home game two weeks later against No. 1 Cal, just 1,411 fans witnessed the Women of Troy sweep the top-ranked Golden Bears. That number decreased to 1,309 in USC’s home match the next day, another impressive three-set victory against No. 2 Stanford.
It’s impossible to say if that first deflating defeat set a negative precedent for the 5,000-plus fans that came out that day, who were perhaps unaware that USC boasts one of the most prestigious and consistently competitive volleyball programs in the country.
But despite two solid campaigns in the past two years that have seen USC reach the NCAA semifinals and quarterfinals, respectively, the team hasn’t replicated the gaudy attendance figure set in the inaugural Pac-12 match.
For the second straight year, USC’s attendance figures when UCLA came to visit the Galen Center decreased. On September 25, No. 4 USC defeated UCLA 3-1 in front of a crowd of 2,479, which has been the high point of the season thus far. Entering Sunday’s match against Cal, the Women of Troy had averaged 1,734 fans — not bad, but not great considering the team is ranked No. 2 in the nation and has already had marquee matchups against UCLA and Stanford.
As I racked my brain to find some reason behind this mystery, I realized that I haven’t been to Galen Center very often as a fan. The truth is, in my three-plus years as a Trojan, I’ve only sat in the student section four times — three times for men’s basketball games, and once for the men’s volleyball championship two springs ago. So maybe I’m part of the problem.
But for those like my friend who have never entered Galen Center as a USC fan, I highly encourage you to give it a try. It’s a beautiful arena that’s hosted numerous conference tournaments, Los Angeles Clipper practices and the Kids Choice Awards. Any school would love to own a similar venue.
And with the way the football team has been playing, chances are that if you don’t want to sit out in the sun and catch a men’s water polo game, the Galen Center hosts USC’s best shot at a championship squad this fall.
Follow Will on Twitter @WillLaws