I was one of the people standing in line Friday evening, though I did not get to see the event. Like approximately 9,000 other people, I was shut out of Late Night in the Phog and told that the building had reached its 16,300 person capacity. Having to work until 5:00 PM in the evening in the Shawnee, Kansas area, I arrived at Allen Fieldhouse just a few minutes after the doors opened and waited in line for about an hour before being informed the doors were officially closed. While frustrated, I understood that the circumstances of my work schedule prohibited me from making it on time, and though a friend had made it inside and was saving a seat for me, I would not be able to get in the building.
There were many others like me. The majority of the people I spoke to in the surrounding area were families with small children and parents who had most likely just gotten off work themselves. Others, however, claimed to have waited up to three or four hours in line without getting a seat. Altogether, 25,000 people showed up for an event that could only seat 16,300. This, coupled with stories and videos of what transpired inside, as well as pictures from inside the building showing that there were many “reserved” seats that were never filled, leads me to recommend to the University of Kansas, of which I am a proud alumnus, that it’s time to rethink Late Night in the Phog.
For starters, we have to acknowledge that the very culture of Late Night in the Phog has changed drastically since its inception. The tradition began under coach Larry Brown in the 1980s, and at one time was an event that actually took place at midnight, as it represented the very first minute the NCAA allowed the team to practice. The event was usually attended by a few thousand people and did not carry nearly the amount of fanfare present today. As time progressed and the program was restored to national prominence with an NCAA Championship in 1988, Late Night in the Phog became increasing popular. Under Roy Williams, the scope of the event was increased to include player introductions and various comedy skits, though the event still occurred at midnight. Under Bill Self’s tenure, the NCAA lifted many of their restrictions on Midnight Madness practices around the country, and schools were allowed to start the event earlier to accommodate families with younger children, as well as to allow television affiliates to broadcast the practices. Today, Late Night in the Phog is more a ceremonial occurrence than a practical one: It in no way represents the first practice of the year, as teams are allowed to hold official workouts weeks before; the majority of the event is now video introductions and skits; and the overwhelming popularity of the event is a far cry from the underground cultural appeal that was prevalent during its early years.
The fact that Late Night is as popular as ever is hardly the problem. The issue lies with the University’s organization of the event, in that the crowd control measures appear to be roughly the equivalent of what they were ten or twenty years ago, when the Late Night was at midnight and the attendance numbers were much lower. As several cell phone videos revealed on local news stations this weekend, those who made it up to the entrance were treated to an environment that was nothing short of dangerous. Though I was not there as the doors opened, several witnesses say the traditional lines that were formed around the building broke down, and thousands of people “rushed” the entrances to force their way in (the University does not set up any kind of rope line or guard rail to form queues). Hundreds of people charged across the front lawn of Allen Fieldhouse, thereby cutting thousands of others who were waiting in lines along the sides of the building. My girlfriend, a current KU student, arrived to get in line around 3:00 PM with some friends from the School of Education. Once the doors opened, she reports that she was crushed by masses of people trying to force their way through the narrow door entrances. Video footage shows people crawling on top of each other and pushing themselves into the building in a situation reminiscent of Black Friday sales. Once through the door, many people immediately sprint out of frame to get the best seat available.
That said, there are much easier (and probably less expensive) ways to avoid such pandemonium. For example, though it is a free event, much of the crowd control issues would disappear if tickets had to be ordered online or at a University of Kansas ticket office. Much like the popular Legends of the Phog event of 2011, each ticket could have a designated seat assigned to it, meaning the “first come-first serve” nature of the event would be almost entirely online. Those who arrive at the Fieldhouse would only be there if they have a ticket. No one would feel the need to rush the door, as all the seats in the venue would be assigned. There would be no need for long lines in general, as patrons could simply move slowly into the building after the doors have opened, knowing that they have a ticket and that their seat is available. Furthermore, people who work until 5:00 PM on the night of the event would not be shut out if they have already ordered their ticket. In an indirect way, this could prevent traffic accidents, as those trying to attend Late Night would not need to hurry through the crowded streets of Lawrence to get in line. Altogether, making Late Night in the Phog a ticketed event saves the University time and money, and ultimately makes students and families safer. The situation on Friday was unsafe, and KU is lucky that someone was not seriously injured. This is the most clear-cut example of “prevent a tragedy before one occurs” that I can think of.
There are other options for rethinking Late Night that don’t involve a complete redesign of how one gets into the event in the first place. As I stated earlier, much of the culture of Late Night has changed, which is not at all a bad thing. The program has evolved over the last 30 years, and so has its fan base. However, perhaps some of the crowd control issues could be alleviated by returning Late Night to its roots. One suggestion could be to split the event and break the crowd into two demographics. There could be a traditional midnight practice session a week before without all of the skits and production value (Midnight in the Phog), followed by the 6:30 PM Late Night in the Phog a week later. Midnight in the Phog could be tailored to college students who live on campus and are up late anyway, or diehard fans interested in the ball-handling development of Naadir Tharpe more than his footwork on the dance floor. Meanwhile, Late Night in the Phog would continue to be the event that it is: An annual, family-orientated program that showcases the new basketball team in an amusing manner.
In conclusion, Late Night in the Phog continues to be a special event thirty years after its inauguration, and it’s one of the many reasons Allen Fieldhouse is the greatest sports venue in America. But the culture of the event has evolved, and it’s time for the University to evolve with it. Late Night can no longer be treated like an easygoing midnight occasion with a few thousand in attendance, because it’s not. The KU basketball team has seen unparalleled success over the last thirty years, and there will always be hype surrounding any upcoming season. This will not be the last year Kansas lands a stud recruit, or the last year Kansas has a preseason top five team. The University and Athletic Department need to take the necessary measures to make these events safe and entertaining for anyone who wishes to attend. Hopefully some of the recommendations above will be considered.