Men’s Basketball: Crisis at the Zoo: Students question Pete seats


By Chris Puzia / Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: 

On March 26, The Pitt News published an article entitled “Crisis at the Zoo: Students question Pete seats,” which attempted to explain why the Oakland Zoo, the Pitt basketball team’s student section, isn’t prominently featured in television broadcasts of games.

Throughout the article, the reporter featured the comments of Greg Hotchkiss, the men’s basketball team’s director of media relations. Hotchkiss sought to provide insight into the rationale behind the Athletic Department’s decision to position the Oakland Zoo on the same side of the court as the main television cameras at the Petersen Events Center, thereby limiting the amount of time the Zoo is featured in a game broadcast.

Unfortunately, the article misquoted Hotchkiss on multiple occasions and portrayed him as overly critical of the Petersen Events Center and the athletic department.

In the third paragraph of the article, The Pitt News reported Hotchkiss said, “If I had been here when they designed the Pete, I would have told them not to do it this way. The building was designed pretty poorly.”

Not only did Hotchkiss never refer to the building as “The Pete,” a colloquial name for the Petersen Events Center, he also never said the building was designed poorly.

Though Hotchkiss did say the first half of the quote, it lacks context, considering Hotchkiss told the reporter before that the Oakland Zoo, created in 2001, was in its infancy with a membership of only 50 students, making it a minor factor in the building’s design.

Hotchkiss also emphasized to the reporter that the placement of luxury boxes on the sideline opposite the Oakland Zoo is the primary reason behind the arena’s design, and that 95 percent of arenas in the United States have the same setup.

In the sixth paragraph, The Pitt News reports that Hotchkiss “acknowledged that fixing the problem would come at a huge expense.” Hotchkiss never considered the positioning of the Oakland Zoo to be a problem, as it was described in the article. This, therefore, is also inaccurate.

In the following paragraph, Hotchkiss is quoted as saying, “At the time they built the Pete, there was no Oakland Zoo, also.” This was a misquotation and, as previously noted, students established the Oakland Zoo in 2001, while the men’s basketball team still played home games at the Fitzgerald Field House.

In the 10th paragraph of the story, The Pitt News reported the Fitzgerald Field House seats about 4,000 people. This was incorrect. Hotchkiss told the reporter it seats 6,000.

Two paragraphs later, The Pitt News reported that Hotchkiss said, “Because they barely sold out the Field House, the rationale was: ‘Why build seats for nobody to sit in?’” This was a misquotation. Hotchkiss told the reporter the Fitzgerald Field House sold out a majority of the games played there in its final season and upon moving to the Petersen Events Center during the 2002-2003 academic year, sellouts continued despite roughly a doubling in seating.

Later in the story, The Pitt News reported that Hotchkiss said, “Because the demand is so high for season tickets, we can basically do whatever we want with licenses and distribution.” This was a misquotation.

Finally, two paragraphs later, The Pitt News reported that Hotchkiss said, “Pitt is not the only school with arena issues.” At no point during the interview with the reporter did Hotchkiss mention issues of any kind concerning the Petersen Events Center.

The Pitt News failed to report other details disclosed by Hotchkiss during the interview, including that the athletic department often pays networks that broadcast games, such as ESPN, to place cameras that rotate 360 degrees on top of the backboard to show the Oakland Zoo. He also disclosed that in 2009, the athletic department commissioned a survey with a number of television experts to determine whether a redesign was necessary to improve the broadcast. Parties involved in the survey determined no changes were necessary.

When Pitt Director of Media Relations Greg Hotchkiss joined the school in 2002, the Petersen Events Center had been open for only three weeks.

 But though it opened just 12 years ago, the Pete has drawn criticism for some of its design features, which most notably prevent the student section, the Oakland Zoo, from getting significant television exposure.

“If I had been here when they designed the Pete, I would have told them not to do it this way,” Hotchkiss said. “The building was designed pretty poorly.”

While most student sections on televised basketball games are shown at the top of the screen, which makes them more visible, the Zoo is instead located on the bottom, drawing complaints from students. For Oakland Zoo Vice President Nick Brenner, this hurts the national visibility of both the team and its student section.

 “I know a lot of people have talked about the Zoo being shown on television,” Brenner, a junior majoring in business, said. “It would be awesome to get the Zoo more recognition by showing it on TV constantly.”

However, Hotchkiss acknowledged that fixing the problem would come at a huge expense, despite the fact that the poor design of the building may result in less visibility for the Zoo.

“It would cost us about $1.5 million [to change the structure],” he said. “Because of electric wiring, luxury suites and other reasons, we can’t just pick up and move the cameras. At the time they built the Pete, there was no Oakland Zoo, also.”

Hotchkiss said television stations such as ESPN and CBS have preferences that factor into the camera placement in arenas. The stations like to show team benches and the scorer’s table, and if the cameras at the Petersen Events Center were switched, those would no longer regularly be on screen.

“You want to have the emotion of the game caught on the benches,” Hotchkiss said. “And if they’re not, ESPN might suddenly decide they don’t want to show games here because of this.”

But before the Petersen Events Center hosted Pitt’s basketball games, the emotion and energy wasn’t really there.

Pitt used to occupy the Fitzgerald Field House, which seats about 4,000 people. At the time construction on the new arena began, the Field House did not even sell out its games.

Because of this, the athletic department at the time did not expect Pitt basketball and its student section to improve so dramatically, and did not anticipate sold-out games and a raucous student section every game at the Petersen Events Center.

“If the Zoo was in full force during the last days of the Fitzgerald Field House, they would have taken that into account when designing the Pete,” Hotchkiss said. “Because they barely sold out the Field House, the rationale was: ‘Why build seats for nobody to sit in?’”

Still, Pitt is not the only major program with its student section not caught on screen. The University of North Carolina, which has played at the Dean Smith Center since 1986, places some of its students behind one basket, but follows the routine of placing the benches and scorer’s table at the top of the screen.

Steve Kirschner, the senior associate athletic director for communications at UNC, said seating students has challenged the Smith Center for years.

“The Smith Center was built with entirely private funding, so the seats behind the benches are given to the people who funded the place,” Kirschner said. “We legally and physically cannot move students much closer.”

Only about 400 students can fit on risers placed behind one basket, but the number of student tickets sold at North Carolina varies based on the importance of each game. Against Duke, its biggest rival, 6,000 student tickets are reserved, but against other opponents, that number is several thousand fewer. The overflow of students is then spread around the lower bowl or placed in higher-level seating.

Kirschner says it yields the most complaints from students, which has led to frequent attempts to improve student seating.

“[Like Pitt], our cameras face the two team benches and scorer’s table, and the seats behind them are not students,’” he said. “Every few years there is a push from students to put students around the court, but the people who built the building have a right to those seats, so we cannot.”

For some students, the nontraditional seating setup is an advantage. 

At Notre Dame’s Joyce Center, the students all stand behind one basket near the opposing bench, and as a result do not get much television exposure. But Senior Associate Athletics Director John Heisler said the students love it this way.

“There was more of an interest in having the students closer to the visiting bench,” Heisler said. “We feel this creates a more hostile environment. The student section has not changed since the arena opened in 1968, so there’s a little tradition involved, as well.”

While the student section has not moved for years at Notre Dame, the benches have. When the Joyce Center was originally built, the benches were located on the same side as the cameras, unlike many other schools.

“A few years back, we hosted some NCAA Tournament games, and the TV station wanted us to move the benches to the opposite side as the camera,” Heisler said. “We ended up leaving them that way ever since.”

In addition to the student section, Pitt has also received complaints about its capacity. The Petersen Events Center seats 12,508 people, but some, like Brenner, say there are simple ways to increase its capacity.

A horizontal line of championship banners hangs from a wall high above one basket, but at most arenas, these banners hang from rafters. As a result, the banners at Pitt occupy space that could otherwise be used to add several hundred more seats.

North Carolina does not have this problem. The Smith Center has approximately 50 banners that honor players and championships, but they hang high from rafters alongside video boards that also hang in corners of the arena.

At Notre Dame’s Joyce Center, the banners hang from rafters, as well. Heisler said the arena did undergo one change, which involved switching its upper seats to chairbacks and removing bleacher seating. This reduced the Joyce Center’s capacity from 11,000 to 9,000.

Hotchkiss said having all chairbacks and a lower capacity actually benefits Pitt, though, because it raises the value of seats.

“From a money standpoint, we want to have demand,” he said. “Only about 20 or so schools sell out basketball tickets regularly, and we are one of them. Because the demand is so high for season tickets, we can basically do whatever we want with seat licenses and distribution.”

Although Pitt basketball annually competes for bids to the NCAA Tournament and has a heralded student section, the Pete has experienced growing pains similar to those seen by other major programs.

Hotchkiss said Pitt is not the only school with arena issues.

Duke’s renowned Cameron Indoor Stadium has lasted for 70 years. But even with added technological advancements and increased university and athletic attendance over the years, the arena seats just 9,314 fans — several thousand fewer than the Petersen Events Center.

“It is much, much hotter in Cameron, and not in great shape as a facility,” said Hotchkiss, who worked as the assistant sports information director at Duke from 1999-2000. “It’s a bad arena, but nobody notices because of its history and the Crazies [student section]. It’s got such a great reputation and advantage that they don’t want to change it much.”

So while the Pete has problems of its own, Hotchkiss says that sacrifices in capacity and Zoo visibility must be made for other benefits.

“We could probably make another $500,000 a year selling Zoo tickets to the public, but the students are the priority,” he said. “The Pete is probably in the top 10 in the country as far as basketball facilities go. Trust me, I’ve been to most of them.”