It all started on a whim.
At a preseason get-together in Indianapolis, Michael Lewis was talking with a group of alumni and donors about the upcoming Ball State Men’s Basketball season, which would be his first as head coach of the program.
A question was posed to Lewis, one that would kick off a revolution in the 2022-23 season: How can the Cardinals get butts in seats at Worthen Arena and build ‘The Nest,’ Worthen Arena’s student section?
His idea, one he admitted may have made University President Geoffrey Mearns and Ball State Legal Services a little nervous, was pretty simple: free beer.
Well, it was a little more complicated than that, but free beer really catches the eye of a majority of college students.
Lewis debuted the ‘Nest Voucher’ Nov. 5, giving the first 300 students in The Nest their choice of a free hot dog, pizza slice, fountain drink or, for those 21 and older, a beer. What started as a whim, paid off with the largest attendance for a home opener since 2018.
The self-appointed “Campus Party Planner” was born.
In the home opener, the Cardinals scored their largest victory in program history over Earlham, with The Nest showing out.
“Hats off to the students,” Lewis said days after the season-opening win. “I don’t know what’s normal here, but a lot of people said it was an over-the-top turnout. I challenged the students, make me get more money. I won’t run out. I’ll keep fundraising, keep doing things, you guys just keep showing up.”
True to his word, Lewis upped the ante to the first 400 students, challenging them to continue building the attendance levels brick-by-brick at each game.
With one fewer game played at home (Ball State faces Toledo in the season finale at Worthen Arena March 3), the Cardinals have seen an increase of 8,848 total fans at home this season compared to the 2021-22 season, averaging about 1,000 more fans per game. Ball State hit its largest attendance of the season, 6,068, in an overtime thriller against Eastern Michigan Feb. 3. It was about 1,500 more than last season’s top and the highest in Worthen Arena in 14 years.
"We played with a different energy. We played with a different approach, a different intensity, a different focus than we did in the exhibition,” Lewis said. “When you run out and have that type of support and energy in the building, it helps out a great deal.”
The money for the promotion comes from a fund via the Alumni Association, Ball State Athletics Communications and Branding Manager Chad Smith said in an email, after talking with Lewis and Interim Director of Athletics Ken Bothof. After a request for the specific amount of money being spent from the fund on the promotion, how many vouchers were being used per game or what percentage of the concession items the vouchers were used for, Smith said the athletic department could not share the information.
“We’ve had supporters provide funding to enhance the student experience at basketball games. As part of that experience, [students] are provided a voucher for optional food and beverage items,” Smith said via email.
Lewis said he wanted to see The Nest grow this season to encourage students to support the team, and have an amplified experience for the student body.
“Just as I raised the money through donors, I'm also a contributor,” he said in November. “We're gonna continue to roll that thing. And let's just see what we can make it.”
It was unclear the total amount of the fund, if Lewis financially contributed to the fund and, if he did, how much he contributed. The Daily News followed up with Associate Director of Communications Brad Caudill about Lewis’ financial contribution and, in response, was referred back to the initial statement that said “supporters provide funding.”
Lewis said the college experience is in the students’ hands – they only get one shot to be in college.
“I look back at my college experience, and I went to college with a bunch of friends from my community and in the state in general,” Lewis said in November. “Just hearing how they talked about how much fun the games were, just being a part of [it], there’s no reason why I don’t believe we can replicate something similar here.”
In the Mid-American Conference (MAC), nine of the 11 schools with basketball programs have said a promotion including free alcoholic beverages for legal-age students has never been done (Miami (Ohio) and Ohio University did not respond to a request for comment).
Northern Illinois’ director of marketing and game experience Ryan Mai-Do said his department is looking into promotions that include free alcoholic beverages after the idea was recommended by a student advisory committee.
“One specific example brought up was for like a few games next season for basketball potentially doing a voucher system for students,” Mai-Do said. “So again, they could get checked and wristbanded for the appropriate ages and whatnot, to give out those vouchers for like, X number of students coming in the door first.”
Of the schools that responded, Ball State is the only school that has had a promotion including free alcoholic beverages for students this season.
“We’ve never done anything like that,” Cliff Bonner, Toledo’s Coordinator of Marketing, Sales and Fan Experience, said. “I just think that, for the university side, it’s a dangerous, dangerous idea.”
Dan Griffin, an assistant athletic director for athletic communications at Kent State, said the university has advertised happy hours for sales of beer – other MAC universities have done a similar promotion – while partnering with local breweries. But Kent State has never given away alcoholic products.
“It just seems like it would be too risky of a proposition,” Griffin said. “That's not something we want to align ourselves with as far as departmental values and things like that. We obviously will encourage people to partake, if they so choose, in our specials. But we would never fully discount and give away product like that on an alcoholic level.”
The Daily News reached out to Ball State’s Office of Risk Management for its perspective on the promotion. Cody Voga, a content and media strategist for Ball State Marketing and Communications, responded for risk management, with a statement from Greg Fallon, chief digital marketing and communications officer at Ball State.
“Ball State University’s Office of Risk Management routinely reviews University alcohol service rules, which are the same regardless of their application,” the statement read via email. “This particular promotion – the offering to provide food or beverage to age-eligible student basketball ticket holders – did not call for any change to our regular alcohol service rules. Members of leadership who oversee risk management did review the promotion before it was introduced.”
The View From The Nest
Lewis, a sports management major who played under Bob Knight at Indiana University, has been around big crowds for most of his life from playing at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall to stops in his coaching career at Butler and UCLA.
Against Miami (Ohio) Jan. 14, Worthen Arena saw its third-largest crowd since 2013. The Nest kept showing up and the Cardinals kept winning. With one home game left to play this season, Ball State is 12-1 inside Worthen Arena. Only Toledo remains undefeated at home in the MAC this season.
“It’s a big difference; I think everyone’s noticed that,” junior guard Luke Bumbalough said. “It plays in huge. It brings our energy up from the jump, so it’s definitely a very big difference since my freshman year, these are the biggest crowds I’ve ever played in at Ball State.”
Following the Miami game, Lewis upped the ante again, increasing the number of vouchers to the first 500 students who showed up.
For first-time students in The Nest, like second-year psychology major Sam Seyer who attended the Feb. 21 Kent State game, it was a completely new experience.
“I had an absolutely fantastic time, it was electric in there,” he said. “Everyone cheering along with each other, it’s not like any sports atmosphere I’ve been in. I felt like I was a part of something.”
Returning fans like exercise science major and Muncie-native Sam Nealy highlighted the changes he saw this season in the student section.
“I’m seeing a lot more positive energy, a lot more people being loud and, most importantly, we’re all just having fun,” he said.
Nealy, who has been to all of Ball State’s home games this season and last, remains focused on the future of The Nest and what the culture can become.“We’ve still got work to do, I just feel like we should invite more friends, invite more family,” he said. “Our job’s not done, we need that pop. We need that good vibe [and] a lot more energy.”
Dedication to the promotion has garnered praise and a cult-like following for Lewis from some of the student body and a rich connection on social media from Cardinal fan accounts. Seyer said students feel connected to the head coach of their basketball team. The Nest feels a sense of responsibility to show up for the team. Despite only attending one game this season, Seyer said he wishes he attended more games and plans to in the future.
“It shows that not only does he want to get more butts in seats, but it shows that he knows the students as well,” he said. “Students show up, they get in for free, they get a free meal with it and get to watch a basketball game. It helps encourage students to come a lot more because it’s less of a financial situation. They get to go and enjoy a basketball game for basically free which is a really, really good pull.”
When Lewis boils it down, he said it’s about creating a community for both the university and the athletics department.
“When I came here, our goal here was to win championships and go to the NCAA Tournament; to do that takes more than coaches and players,” Lewis said in November. “We’re pushing our program, holding it to more accountability, demanding more and just across the board within our athletic department. We need to continue to grow, [so] our university can continue to grow, and that includes our fan support, especially our students.”
When he was hired in the spring 2022, Lewis wasted no time getting involved in the Ball State community. Whether it was going to sporting events or riding around on a bus for One Ball State Day with women’s basketball head coach Brady Sallee, Lewis was there.
“How can I ask the students to come out and support us if I’m not doing the same? Who am I? I get an opportunity to be a basketball coach and make a living coaching a game, right? I have a ton of fun. I’m very comfortable with who I am. I’m not scared to put myself out there,” Lewis said. “I think I’m a big believer that if you can get an entire athletic department and an entire university moving in the same direction, then great things happen. So, it’s my job as the leader of our program to get our program involved in things on campus and in the community, leading the charge.”
As long as students are making those connections, Lewis will be happy.
“You get one shot to be a college student,” he said. “You get one opportunity to establish connectivity and a connection to where you go to school. Whether it’s coming to a basketball game, football game or it’s theatre, get involved. It can help you grow, you never know who you may meet or things you may pick up. It can help you evolve as a person.”
The mindset, the connections and the planning for his first season all paid off seconds before his first game as head coach. When the ball went up against Earlham, Lewis was locked into the game, but leading up to the tip-off of his first season as a head coach was a moment 18 seasons in the making.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s cool,” he said. “Because you’ve worked a long time to put yourself in this position. I’ve been pretty patient throughout my career for what I thought was a good job where I could be successful. This opportunity came up and was perfect for me. Very few times in anyone’s career do you ever feel like you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at that time. I feel that way about my opportunity here. I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be with an opportunity to lead this program.”
With the final home game of the season on March 3 against Toledo at 6 p.m., the Friday that marks the beginning of Spring Break, Lewis focused on the Feb. 21 matchup against Kent State to end the season, going all in for The Nest. All students attending the game would receive a Nest Voucher as Lewis attempted to “throw the biggest party of the year yet.” That night, the second-largest crowd of the season saw Ball State beat the Golden Flashes, on a Tuesday no less.
“It’s very gratifying to see that,” Lewis said. “I hope we start something this year that not only the students but the community can support, and I’m going to do something for the community on the last game. I’ll come up with a silly gimmick again. I’ll be party planner again if that’s what it takes, I don’t really care. I just want our team to play hard and compete and do what it takes to win. If we do that and the students show up and have a good time, and if we play good basketball, you’re in Indiana, they’re gonna support it.”