College Basketball Attendance Under Attack

 

About one out of every five men’s basketball Division I programs have seen a decline in their average regular season attendance over the past 4 years of 20 percent or more, according to a story this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  While some of the Division I programs have seen an increase in attendance, many programs are trying to deal with significant gaps in their athletic department budgets caused by the attendance decline.

Attendance headed downhill

Overall attendance for Division I men’s basketball games last season was down more than half a million from 2008, and the average crowd size has dropped each of the past four seasons, according to the NCAA. Year by year:

Year Teams Total Attendance Average
2007 325 27,705,912 5,548
2008 328 28,135,901 5,524
2009 330 27,767,111 5,378
2010 334 27,539,459 5,245
2011 335 27,626,165 5,237

Basketball ticket revenue typically accounts for between 5 and 10 percent of a Division I school’s total athletic department revenues.  According the Chronicle story, UCLA saw a decline in attendance between 2009 and 2012 of some 3600 fans per game.  UCLA had 15 home dates this season.  That means that the program drew some 57,000 fewer fans than it did four years ago.

Assuming that some 17,000 of those lost fans were students who get in for free, that leaves 40,000 fewer tickets sold.  At an average ticket price of $30, that means that the program has seen a drop of some $1.2 million in ticket revenues.   Add in the loss of concession revenue and revenues from the sale of licensed merchandise and the program has probably lost over $1.5 million in revenues.  That figure does not include lost advertising revenues from ads inside Pauley Pavilion and in the game program due to a declining audience.

Jim Haney is the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.  He told The Chronicle that this issue is a major one with member coaches.  I don’t think there’s a coach in the country who doesn’t know that in addition to winning games, fan attendance is an integral part of a successful program,” he said.  “if you’re not putting people in the seats, that’s not a good thing”.

Declining attendance is also a growing problem for the NCAA Division I Tournament.  USA Today reports that between 2008 and 2011 the average attendance at tournament games declined by almost 10%.  If that trend continues TV networks will eventually want to pay less for the rights to broadcast the tournament.

Empty seats at big dance

Even for college basketball’s signature NCAA tournament, attendance has softened. Charting the past four years:

Year Games Total Attendance Average
2008 35 763,607 21,817
2009 35 708,296 20,237
2010 35 706,246 20,178
2011 36 690,679 19,186

There are likely several factors influencing the decline in attendance.  The prevalence of games on TV and the ability to follow teams online may have a significant impact on fans’ willingness to drive to games.  Prominent programs such as Syracuse and Connecticut have had to deal with serious scandals in their programs.  Connecticut is not only on probation for rule violations in its men’s program; but the team is ineligible for the 2013 Tournament because of its low Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores.

Many Division I coaches now make huge salaries.  Star players may only stay in college for one year before moving on to the NBA.  These factors may hurt brand loyalty and leave many fans feeling disconnected from programs that they now regard as big businesses.

This could indeed represent a cultural change.  Indiana high school basketball holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many basketball fans.  From 1911 to 1995 the state had a one class, all comers post-season tournament.   The New York Times ran a feature story in its sports section on March 25 about the decline in fan interest even in that state.

The focus of the story was on Anderson High School and its old arena, The Wigwam.  The arena, opened in 1961, seats 8996 and was the second largest high school arena in the country.  In the 1970s the team sold 6,000 season tickets and attendance averaged over 8,000 per game.  The city’s three high schools have shrunk to one due to populations losses as manufacturing jobs in the auto industry were lost.  Anderson High School now is located in what used to be Madison Heights High School.

The Board of Education closed the Wigwam after the 2011 season because of the huge cost of maintaining the building.  The average attendance the last season there was 750 per game.  This season the school played in the 2500 seat on campus gym.  Attendance actually increased; but only averaged 1,000 per game.

In 1965 the State Tournament saw some 630 schools involved.  Total attendance was 1.5 million and average attendance was 2500 per game.  In 1995, the final year of the one class tournament, some 440 schools were involved and attendance was 750,000, an average of about 1,700 per game.

Interestingly, in the past 20 years attendance at high school football games in Indiana has doubled.  There are many economic and cultural factors that seem to be threatening attendance at all levels of basketball below the NBA.

Press coverage of college basketball peaks the week of the Final 4.  With Kentucky playing Louisville in one semi-final game this Saturday and Ohio State playing Kansas in the other semi-final, coverage will be almost 24/7.  Even with all of this intense interest, it should be noted that not only is attendance declining for college basketball; but TV ratings are slightly down from last year through the first two weekends of the tournament.

Men’s basketball is at many colleges the only sport besides football that makes a net profit.  If revenues continue to decline as attendance declines, we may be seeing a vastly different product over the next 10 years.  Stay tuned.

 

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