SALT LAKE CITY — Last Saturday at the Huntsman Center, the Utes played their way into a No. 3 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. It seemed an important game, considering their slim NCAA Tournament chances. Attendance was announced at 13,751, though an eyeball test would confirm that was off by a few thousand.
But there’s no exaggerating the concern athletic officials nationwide are feeling about shrinking crowds. Overall numbers have been slipping for decades.
WalletHub.com rates Salt Lake City the nation’s sixth-best midsized city to be a college basketball fan, with Provo eighth. If this is a hot ticket, pity the folks in Thibodaux and Sacramento.
This is March, when everyone seems to care about college hoops. But the rest of the year, interest is spotty. USC, the second-place team in the Pac-12, drew 4,436 a game this season. Stanford and UCLA tied with Utah for third in the standings, yet only averaged 4,307 and 8,620, respectively. With a 12,673 average, the Utes trailed only Arizona in the Pac-12.
BYU averaged 14,231, more than twice any other team in the West Coast Conference, but it also has an arena more than twice the size of any other in the league.
Utah and BYU do well, relative to most teams. The Cougars averaged 14th nationally (14,476) in 2016-17, while Utah ranked 26th (12,050). Forty years ago, BYU was selling over 17,000 tickets a game, Utah over 13,000.
Attendance always shows a bump when teams are good. But overall, the trend is down. Ticket and concession costs, parking, weather, late tipoff times and outside interests combine to make it hard to sell out games, even in Utah. The BYU-Utah game this year at the Marriott Center was nearly 3,000 shy of a sellout.
Even in the early 2000s, I was told by a BYU athletic department official that academic rigors were steering away students.
Attracting fans was an issue long before cell phones started gobbling up free time.
In 1993, the average draw nationally was 5,382. Last year it was 4,633. That might not seem a big change, but look around. Few arenas sell out and most don’t announce the true number of people in seats.
Here are a few other reasons the college season, prior to March, doesn’t have the allure it once did:
The product. Not a lot of future NBA talent is on display. Top talent doesn’t stick around, so picking a fan favorite is fleeting. And only a handful of schools get top players.
A good rule of thumb is the less talent a player has, the longer he stays.
The pace. College basketball has sped up the game, but it still gets tedious. The NCAA reduced the shot clock from 45 to 35 seconds, then to 30, and three years ago decreased the number of timeouts. But with the maximum number of TV and team timeouts still at double-digits — excluding play reviews, fouls, injuries and general nonsense — there are still too many stops.
Meanwhile, teams offset a dearth of natural talent with physical, smothering defense. That’s effective, even desirable, but usually unwatchable.
The internet. The World Wide Web often gets credited with both the decline and elevation of civilization. Younger fans seem more interested in Twitter’s reaction to a game, or posting a meme, than the actual event.
Date night at the arena? How about an hour of FaceTime?
Transfers. A recent NCAA study showed 40 percent of players who enter a Div. I college leave by the end of their sophomore year. Accompanying data said 689 players transferred to another school before this season began.
Continuity is becoming rare.
Coaches too are transient. They can leverage a good year into a raise or a new job, and a bad year into a buyout.
Slow liftoffs. Former Utah State and BYU coach Ladell Andersen used to crusade for a post-Christmas launch. That might not make financial sense, but until the football bowl season is over, college basketball remains an afterthought.
People chafe at having Northern Colorado or North Dakota on the early football schedule, but the Ute basketball team played Montana Tech, Prairie View A&M, Mississippi Valley State, Northwestern State and Eastern Washington in the same season.
Not even games against the Big 12, SEC and Big East can offset that.
In conclusion Everyone likes the NCAA Tournament. But regular-season games in January, not so much. Maybe the end result will be virtual reality participation. Fans will sit at home feeling as though they were on the court. As the long distance telephone ads once said — back when college basketball ruled — it’s the next best thing to being there.