September 14, 2013 Updated: September 15, 2013 at 9:50 am
Editors Note: The Gazette will occasionally run a series looking at what it's like being a sports fan in Colorado Springs.
The loyalty shown to Colorado Springs college sports teams is fragile and a little mysterious.
One year, a winning team can be playing in front of packed, loud houses. A few years later, a coach might be sitting on the bench, looking at acres of empty seats and wondering if someone forgot to unlock the doors.
This brittle allegiance is not only an issue and a challenge in the Springs. It's a Colorado thing.
This is an underrated college sports town. Colorado College, despite stumbling through much of the hockey season, finished fifth nationally in paid attendance. Air Force's basketball team, resurrected by coach Dave Pilipovich and star Michael Lyons, once again packed Clune Arena for battles vs. New Mexico and Colorado State.
Winning sells tickets. Losing inspires the sporting masses to stay at home, where a comfortable couch and dozens of free TV games beckon.
In October 2007, as you probably recall, Rockies mania swept our state. We gathered in front of our TVs to watch the team ride to the World Series. The devotion seemed so deep, so strong.
Only it wasn't.
On Sept. 8, less than a month before the Rockies seized the hearts of Colorado sports fans, they played in front of more than 34,000 empty seats at Coors Field, and this was with Barry Bonds in the house. The Rockies boasted a winning record and remained in the pennant race.
Not long ago, fans packed Pepsi Center for Avalanche games. The Avs stopped winning and - guess what? - fans stopped traveling to downtown Denver to watch.
Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh sometimes wanders around Falcon Stadium before football games gazing at empty seats.
"I have a saying: If you win, they will come," Mueh said with a sigh. "Fans are a little fickle that way. They love a winner."
This is true in the Springs. The Broncos, of course, are the exception. The Broncos captivate us and enrage us and thrill us, and devotion to the team is so deep it goes far beyond a win-loss record.
Pilipovich realizes the struggle to persuade fans to travel to Clune Arena. He has a TV in his home, and he understands every other sports fan has a TV, too. He knows it's tempting to stay home. No traffic. Cheap food. No hassles.
"You can see anything, any game," he said. "There are so many games, that whatever the hour, you can stay home and watch a game."
That's one reason he talks, with the help of a microphone, to fans after most Air Force games. He thanks them for coming and asks them to please return.
"We need to be thankful," Pilipovich said of those who drive to Clune. "Any time they are taking money out of their wallets, we appreciate that."
Yes, they can.
In December 2008, Pilipovich sat down at the bench a few minutes before a game at Clune against Norfolk State. He was virtually alone. He estimates 120 fans sat in the stands. The crowd was partially because of snowy, perilous weather and partially because the Falcons were one of the worst teams in college basketball.
Pilipovich turned to fellow assistant Steve Snell.
"One of us needs to go up there and unlock the doors," Pilipovich said.
On March 9, another snowy, perilous day, Pilipovich looked around Clune toward the end of a thriller against New Mexico. The place was packed, every ticket sold. The Falcons were again winners.
"Look around," Pilipovich commanded his players as he toured the arena with his eyes. "This is pretty neat."
At Colorado College, hockey coach Scott Owens enjoys a more devoted fan base. The Tigers averaged 6,975 in paid attendance this season, even though the team had 19 losses.
"This is an excellent college sports town," Owens said. "I think there's no doubt about that. The fans will support you if you're winning and if you're putting a good product on the ice. They get excited about it, take pride in it, read about it."
Still, Owens is a realist.
"When the team is struggling or not playing a hard-skating, hard-hitting game, you will see fans drop off."
In other words: Win, or else.
This is true about Colorado Springs. And true about Colorado.