Cleveland has hosted the Men’s Basketball Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament since 2000, and the Women's since 2001. The second-highest populated city in Ohio is around 265 miles and just over four hours away from Muncie, Indiana.
But that distance did not stop the Ball State University faithful from showing up for the Cardinals this year. Before women’s basketball’s semifinal round loss to Bowling Green March 10, fans showed up to Harry Buffalo, a sports bar across the street from Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, and showed their support.
The fan’s perspective
“I had never done it before,” Dan Thornburg said. “The ladies had a good seed and a good team. I thought we had pretty good prospects and [a chance at] maybe making some noise, so I think it was up to me to come.”
Thornburg attended Ball State in the 1960s, and after he noticed the Cardinals were starting to trend in the right direction, he made the trip to Cleveland.
“I was following back when it was good many years ago,” he said. “I can see hopefully that we're getting that turned around so we can see some more competitive basketball.”
For some, this was not their first rodeo. Michael Smith, another Ball State alumnus, has attended all 23 MAC tournaments held in the city.
“My sister, who also is a Ball State alumni, lives in Cleveland,” he said. “That's my favorite part about the city. My second favorite part is probably that it’s just a great place to have fun and party.”
To Smith, the women’s team is in a good position. On the men’s side, he believes first-year head coach Michael Lewis brings new blood to the program. He liked the student involvement in games during the regular season, but wants more to attend the MAC Championship.
“I’d like to see a lot more students come to it,” he said. “It is during spring break and it would be a great place to be during the break.”
Even though some fans made their way just for the basketball teams, some fans had other reasons.
Brian and Barb Hall returned this season after attending the tournament last season. Their daughter, junior Alexis Hall, is on the Code Red Dance Team.
“I think it's awesome,” Barb said. “We've watched her dance in [Las] Vegas, watched her dance in Chicago and watched her dance at Gainbridge [Fieldhouse in Indianapolis]. This year, we watched her at Rocket Mortgage, [and] it's pretty cool to see it.”
The family lives in Kokomo, about an hour away from Muncie. However, this season, they made their way to multiple Ball State games and noticed the changes compared to the previous season.
“We came last year to the games and there were barely any people there,” Barb said. “You could hear a pin drop. But this year has been absolutely awesome to see how many students are there. People have been coming, and it's been so loud, and it's awesome.”
What it means to Ball State
Fans were not the only ones who showed up to the pregame party. That morning, newly hired athletic director Jeffery Mitchell showed up to show his support. The fact that it was snowing, something he had ever experienced once before, made it even more special for him.
In his short time around Ball State Athletics, he has noticed how the community has embraced basketball.
“I think [Muncie is] a special place,” he said. “This continues to reinforce the idea that Ball State is a special community with a real handle on this. I am excited about that.”
Deputy athletic director Haven Fields also made an appearance at the event. This was his third time attending the tournament.
“I think the Mid-American Conference does a great job,” he said. “Obviously when you can tie into having it at a professional venue, that always elevates the experience for fans. It's just been great.”
Fields thinks the fans' support in Cleveland is what the university preaches.
“Community engagement is what gets us excited about knowing that people have such a passion for sports, let alone intercollegiate athletics,” Fields said. “It puts us in a position to be able to get people out and let them enjoy the experience, and it just means a lot. But a lot of the community speaks to what the university is doing from the community engagement focus standpoint.”
It was not just athletic staff who made their presence felt at the MAC Tournament. University President Geoffrey Mearns sat in the front row to watch the Cardinals take on Bowling Green.
“It's very exciting for our team and for our players to see familiar faces in the audience,” Mearns said. “It's a really big crowd here overall, but it's great for our student athletes to see the support of our long standing fans.”
With the success that Ball State has had recently in athletics, such as 20 plus-win seasons for both men’s and women’s basketball, Mearns thinks athletics are in a good position.
“We are both a football school, a basketball school, and a comprehensive sports program,” he said. “So we're performing at the highest level across the entire sports program, and it's great to see basketball on a cold winter day, inside an arena watching a hot matchup.”
What the support means to the sport, especially the women's side
One of the biggest fans at the game, Joey McKeown, took pictures with the women’s team before the game. He has attended the tournament every year since 2014.
His father, Joe, is the women's basketball head coach at Northwestern University. To him, Cleveland is a great place for the tournament.
“I think it's just a unique setting where you can have the teams and all the fans all in one place,” Joe said. “The MAC is a great league, and I think it's accessible to most of the schools to go to Cleveland.”
According to ESPN, women's college basketball viewership increased by 11 percent during the 2022-23 season. Joe thinks seeing fans support women's teams, like the Cardinals fans did in Cleveland, is a good step for the future of women’s college basketball.
“To see Indiana [University] sell games… just playing Purdue and Notre Dame, just seeing people lined up to get tickets early in the morning,” Joe said. “It's everything we've worked for. It's just in a really good place right now.”