LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Brigham Young’s basketball team has a built-in home crowd advantage nearly every place it goes. Sometimes it’s a small, vocal group in the corner, other times several hundred fans show up, outnumbering those there to support the actual home team.
Cougars fans show up in the same places pretty much every time, but occasionally pop up in arenas and towns the team doesn’t expect, providing a familiar lift in a strange place.
With the worldwide reach of the Mormon church — many of them basketball fans — BYU almost always feels at least a little at home while on the road.
“The support just seems to stretch to everywhere we go,” BYU coach Dave Rose said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has more than 15 million members in nearly 30,000 congregations worldwide, including roughly 6.3 million in the United States.
The church’s worldwide headquarters is in Salt Lake City, so the largest concentration of Mormons is in Utah (about 1.9 million members), but there are congregations and church members in every state.
BYU is owned and operated by the Mormon church, so there’s an automatic connection between the school’s athletic teams and church members.
Not all Mormon church members are BYU fans — there is a dividing line with University of Utah fans, for example — but the Cougars feel the love wherever they play, whether it’s a place with a large Mormon population like California or an East Coast city like Buffalo, New York.
“A lot of times we draw from the crowd and it’s nice to know that wherever we go, we’re going to have some support, someone who’s going to be cheering us on, people who are going to the game because of the location of the game (is close),” BYU senior forward Nate Austin said. “We can feed off their energy and their support.”
BYU always gets strong support in the states close to Utah and has a strong following in California, where the Cougars crowd will often outnumber the home teams’ in West Coast Conference games.
The Cougars also have drawn lots of fans in Texas over the years, particularly when they were in the same conference as TCU.
Sometimes, the support is unexpected.
Last year, BYU played Texas and Wichita State in Kanas City and had entire sections filled with supporters. A game in Buffalo several years ago drew over 100 Cougars fans, too.
BYU also has taken overseas trips the past few years and received strong support from LDS members in places like Italy, Croatia and Australia. At last week’s Maui Invitational, tickets were hard to come by because of the small venue size, but LDS members still found their way inside the Lahaina Civic Center to cheer for the Cougars.
“That’s one of the unique parts of our travel, that wherever we go, we have a pretty good following,” Rose said.
Occasionally, the Cougars will get to interact with their LDS fans on the road.
The football team has more time for events with members of the church because they’re usually in town longer, but the basketball team still finds ways to meet even with its time constraints.
Rose said he has spoken to church members on the road and there have been times when the team has met with LDS members after games, typically in venues away from the arena.
The Cougars didn’t have time for any events with Mormon leaders in Maui, but did attend a local church the Sunday before the tournament started.
“We have fans all over and it means a lot to us that our fans are here because of the church, so we try to meet and talk with them whenever we can,” Austin said.
Support for the Cougars reached a pinnacle between 2007 and 2011, when All-American guard Jimmer Fredette was at the height of his popularity.
Jimmermania spread from Provo to every place BYU played, drawing fans of all backgrounds to come see the dynamic guard who scored in bunches. LDS fans showed up to road games in droves to see Fredette play and the school often set up functions so fans could meet him.
“When Jimmer was here and we had Jimmermania, we tried to facilitate that as much as possible so people could interact with him and he loved it,” Rose said. “It was a fun time.”
It still is at most road games, thanks to the support the Cougars get from church members.