Meet ‘N Greet

People of all ages attended UH’s "Fan Appreciation Night" on Friday to truly get to know the football players – but with their helmets off.

The event was part of a Universitywide effort to promote "school spirit and create awareness and excitement about the upcoming season," Marketing Director for the Athletics Department Lee De Leon said.

"The whole purpose is to interact with the football players without pads or helmets," De Leon said. "They’re not going to have any barriers, so you can interact with them on a personal level."

Families filled the Athletics/Alumni Center on Friday night for food, fun and of course, football. Last year, 500 people attended the event.

"What we’re trying to do is bring fans in so they can meet the coaches and see the players up close," Athletics Director Dave Maggard said. "We want to try to instill some enthusiasm about the upcoming season."

The annual tradition began five years ago and occurs before the first football game of the season, Maggard said.

"Fans can take pictures, get autographs, anything they want," De Leon said.

A pep rally featuring performances by the Spirit of Houston marching band, the UH cheerleaders and the Cougar Dolls was just a part of the two-hour event.

"We’ve (had) video games set up, so if the kids want to play with the players, they can," De Leon said. "We want our fans to interact with the players and talk – not just sign autographs – but actually have conversations and develop relationships."

The "fan-friendly" event was intended for people to get to know the players.

"This is a different thing than it is for pros. You go to an autograph session and you pay 50 bucks for an autograph – that’s not what this is about," Maggard said. "We want people to feel good about meeting the coaches and players."

Both De Leon and Maggard see the occasion as a family event.

"It’s not only for students, but for families and little kids," De Leon said. "We want them to come interact with the team."

University Studies freshmen Checauna Powell said she couldn’t imagine a better way to spend her first college weekend.

"You can feel the excitement; it’s spirited," Powell said.

Communication freshman Marissa Williams said she was inspired by the school spirit.

"We’re excited about (the football games)," Williams said. "We’re painting our faces."

The fans are not the only ones who enjoy the tradition.

"I love it. It’s important to give back to the fans," wide receiver Donnie Avery said. "You get to see the little kids who look up to you, hug them, take pictures with them. We want the fans to come out to the games. They’re what drive us, so this is the least we can do for them."

The football team’s enthusiasm is also what makes the event so special, De Leon said.

"The team is great. They’re cooperative," he said. "Whenever we say we want to do something for the fans they do whatever they can to help out and make it a success."

Events like this allow fans and players to build relationships, De Leon said.

"(Student) attendance has doubled 141 percent (for football games)," he said. "We went from 11,000 to 30,000 fans. Overall attendance increased about 40 percent on average."

Last year, average student attendance for football games exceeded 4,500. In the 2005 season, average attendance was less than 2,000.

The sale of season tickets has also increased, with 783 season tickets more than this time last year already sold, De Leon said.

"Attendance is up across the board, and we want to continue on that upward swing," he said.

Maggard said that the event can be used to create fans from even the youngest of ages.

"I think that interaction brings some of the small kids out, and it’s a way of introducing them to the University of Houston and University of Houston athletics program," Maggard said. "Those are hopefully our season ticket holders of the future."

The event has served as a precursor to an action-packed season, De Leon said.

Fans will have another opportunity to interact with the football team at an open practice on Sept. 5.

"We don’t have a game that weekend, but the first home game is a couple weeks after that," De Leon said. "So hopefully, people will come and eat dinner with the players… and then come out and watch them practice on Sept. 5."

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