ESPN ranks ‘Zona Zoo’ No. 1 in the Pac-12

The famed Zona Zoo, which ESPN has just named the No. 1 student cheering section in the Pac-12, has become a major part of the marketing momentum for the University of Arizona, according to Dan Heck, associate director of marketing for Arizona athletics.

The ranking underscores the influence the Zoo has attained nationally.  According to Ted Miller, writing for ESPN.com in its rankings published this week, “The Zona Zoo is 10,000 strong and committed.”

It is, as is known by all (and especially opposing teams) very, very loud in its support, whether in the stadium or the arena. A number of rival players, including former U.S.C. quarterback Mark Sanchez, Miller wrote, “said Arizona is the toughest place to play in the Pac-12, other than Oregon’s Autzen Stadium.”

Yet Oregon placed No. 3 in the ranking.  Why?  “Oregon students know exactly the problem here. The student section is capped at less than 5,500 for home games,” Miller said.

The Zona Zoo, by comparison, has had about 10,000 members every year since 2003, a year after it was begun near the end of the 2002 football season through a campus contest to find a catchy name for the growing (and increasingly, audibly voracious) student section.

The ESPN rankings gave the No. 2 spot to Utah’s MUSS (“Mighty Utah Student Section”). Washington (“Husky Stadium used to be the toughest place to play in the Pac-12,” said ESPN) came in at No. 4.

And oh: Arizona State, Arizona’s arch-rival just over 100 miles northward in the desert, finished last in the list, at No. 5. “The Sun Devils’ student section numbers around 9,000, and it easily could be bigger,” ESPN said, noting that “you might have heard that ASU is a pretty big party school. The student section at Sun Devil Stadium does nothing to dispel that notion.”

For basketball season, the Zona Zoo continues to make itself uproariously known, though at somewhat reduced strength, at McKale Center, where reservations for Zona Zoo seats become available days before a game.

For the Utah game, for example, the rush was definitely on. As soon as the seats became available, 800 were reserved within three minutes. Twenty-eight minutes later, all the Zona Zoo seats were sold — the fastest time on record, according to Heck.

The size, volume, spirit and all-around good cheer of the Zona Zoo support the job of selling the University of Arizona as a great all-round college environment, Heck added.

Zona Zoo has sold out for every game since the Cats played the University of Las Vegas on December 7. Heck said the marketing behind Zona Zoo has evolved since the Cats began their famous 21-game winning streak this season. “We want the student section to reflect what a number-one team should have,” Heck said. In television images, the Zona Zoo often appears as a sea of kinetic red and bouncing balloons. But look closer and there are fun-loving oddities: Giant cutouts of movie characters, for example, including Will Ferrell.

The idea that loudly cheering fans boost teams in a significant way is bolstered even in the N.F.L.  In Seattle, the so-called 12th Man – that hometown football crowd and its deafening roar — has become part of the mystique for the Super Bowl victors, the Seattle Seahawks. A flag is raised each home game with the number 12 to signify the role of the fans in assisting the 11 men on the gridiron. In tribute, jersey number 12 has even been retired from the Seahawks roster.

Seahawks fans who traveled to New Jersey, or even those in the stadium who simply took their cues long-distance from legacy of the the 12th Man hometown crowd, were certainly visible and audible at the Super Bowl on February 2. Still, a smattering of grumbling among Broncos fans that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning couldn’t be heard yelling his calls because of the 12th Man roar seemed a little excessive, given the record 35-point spread in the Seahawks’ 43-8 walloping of the Broncos.

In Tucson, in basketball season, being the “6th Man” is the main goal for the Zona Zoo, said Mario Ziccarelli, executive director of the Zona Zoo Crew. The crew is made of student volunteers who bring the giant posters (offensive or rude messages are prohibited) and get the chants  going. Crew members are scattered throughout the student section, and make unique signs for students to hold up and wave. “The student section has a big impact,” Ziccarelli said.

The idea is to “unite everybody who loves U.A.,” Gabe Encinas, another crew member, said while pumping air into a noodle-shaped red balloon. The crew inflate around 500 balloons before big games and pass them out to students.

As to No. 5 on that ESPN list, Arizona State? Well, A.S.U. is said to be trying to build something similar to the Zona Zoo with its own cheering section, called the Inferno, comprised of students wearing gold. There has been some speculation that the Inferno might have played a role in Arizona State narrowly beating Arizona last Friday in Tempe, when hometown fans even rushed the court.

Meanwhile, back in Tucson, Heck said he frequently meets with members of the Zona Zoo Crew, trying to figure out way to improve the Zoo, including ways to make it seem more vibrant and even chaotic. “Think of an actual zoo. Animals contained in one area, some wild; some more subdued,” he said.

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