The NCAA had media parked in Lot 6 at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. That lot is all the way in the back of the stadium, and in fact, I think it’s the same lot the New England Patriots personnel use during the season, because you had to go through a security gate to gain access to it. Driving into the P1 entrance, and then traveling down about a thousand feet to Lot 6, I was taken aback at the sea of gold in the Gillette Stadium tailgating in the Gillette Stadium parking lots.
I knew the expected Merrimack crowd was going to be big. Estimates from the college athletic department last week had it around 2,000. It felt similar to when the men’s hockey team reached TD Garden in 2011 as part of the Hockey East Championship. People were coming out of the woodwork.
But I didn’t expect to see that many people tailgating. I didn’t expect to see that many people in gold shirts taking over the parking lots at the front of Gillette Stadium. For those who have watched the Merrimack athletic program, closely, as a whole for the last 15 years, it was surreal.
Also, it’s safe to say, those 2,000 estimates were blown out of the water.
Merrimack fans had at least four sections of the lower bowl at Gillette Stadium packed. According to online seating charts, there are about 800 seats per section in the lower bowl. That alone is 3,200 people, and it doesn’t include Merrimack fans scattered throughout the stadium, including on the opposite side where most of that section was filled as well.
In total, there had to be 4,000 Merrimack fans at Gillette. Maybe 5,000.
For those unaware, that’s roughly 2,000 more (67 percent) than the college enrollment.
This was coming from an athletic department that, in 2002, had trouble drawing 500 people to a Division I hockey game. There was in-fighting between teams on campus and no one supported each other. At the top, I’d argue the college didn’t support athletics, either. Everything was an afterthought. The hockey rink was falling apart, the gym floor was a disgrace and the field at the stadium resembled a mud pit more than it did natural grass. Finally they installed turf, but I remember that not even being done correctly, and a new field had to be laid down shortly thereafter.
Sunday was a big realization in how far Merrimack athletics has come as a program over the 15 years. People care now. People at the top of the college, people on the campus, and people within the community.
Sunday night, the NCAA announced that the total Sunday attendance (including the Division I Women’s Final and the Division III Men’s Final) topped 35,000 people, setting a new record for Sunday attendance at the NCAA Lacrosse Championships. That’s in no small part thanks to the overwhelming turnout from Merrimack fans.
Somehow, the small college in North Andover, which is still one of the smallest colleges (per enrollment) playing Division I hockey, comes out in huge numbers for big events like this. In truth, they come out in pretty big numbers all the time. Merrimack’s attendance numbers in most sports are near the top of the NE10.
That’s part of what you get at a small college like Merrimack. The term, “it’s a community,” is often overused. Colleges use it in pitches to high school students all the time. But at Merrimack, there’s some truth to it.
Walking on the field before Sunday’s game, I was asking some of the people seated near the front what the tailgate was like outside. There was a DJ, and from what I could tell, it was a giant party. Why? The answer most given was that people feel like they’re a part of this team. That’s the benefit of being a small college. Whether you’re a student-athlete or a kid who barely got into the school from some suburb 15 miles away, you’re walking the same halls and taking the same classes. Huge sections of students were screaming out to players on the field during warmups. Why? Because they know them. They’re friends.
You don’t get that at big schools. Things are segregated. Athletes keep to themselves and students are fans, sure, but there isn’t the same connection.
It’s not SEC football or ACC basketball, but there’s something to be said for the small campus.
With an expected move to Division I for all sports on the horizon — I’d say it’s a matter of when, not if — this is a good sign for Merrimack athletics. People care. People feel like they’re a part of these teams whether or not they actually put on a uniform. That’s something, as a future Division I program, Merrimack can offer that not every school can.
If there’s one thing Merrimack can promise its future student-athletes, and future students, it’s that win or lose, you’ll be along for one helluva ride.