Go Figure: Attendance Woes

By Lauren Brownlow | 11 Comment(s) | Posted

After North Carolina beat ECU last Saturday, head coach Roy Williams was asked how different the atmosphere in the Smith Center was with former Tar Heel point guard Jeff Lebo back in the Smith Center, coaching on the other sideline. “The atmosphere was sort of like my team - it was a little different,” Williams said with a wry smile.

And it was...different. Pre-Christmas crowds are not generally huge, but it was actually a pretty good number considering it was a noon game against a non-marquee opponent: 19,147. (To put that in perspective, Carolina had 15,403 at the Florida International game earlier this year.) Still, though, the atmosphere was much like the team itself - a bit flat.

In a lot of the college basketball games I’ve covered this year, I’ve felt this increasingly palpable sense that the crowd feels as if they are owed entertainment. After all, they could be at home watching the game on television or streaming it on ESPN3, which is probably both the best and worst thing to happen to the league as a whole in quite some time.

Now, it seems like when a team goes through a stretch of bad play, the home crowd’s applause and shouts of encouragement seem to be changing into groans and - perhaps worse - silence.

The decline in attendance at sporting events has been a problem in all sports, not just college basketball. But somehow, everyone want to try to break things down individually. I’ve seen articles detailing that the University of Oklahoma’s basketball attendance is down because of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and in Miami, the problem is that the weather is good.  

Even in some of the nation’s most successful television sports like NASCAR and the NFL, it’s been an issue. Some NFL teams consistently have to black out games locally because they can’t sell out.

The problem is really not specific to any one area or team, although there are of course nuances to each individual attendance issue. The problem is that people now feel like the game-day experience is not enough to make up for the convenience and comfort of watching from home, especially if you can’t get a decent seat.  

At times, it’s hard to argue with that. As a reporter, I’m much closer to the action than most. I covered the Stanford-NC State game last night (the best non-conference home game for the Wolfpack, which drew 15,772). Afterwards, I was tweeting about Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins playing a rotation of 12 (!) and how difficult it was to keep track of that. “Try sitting in the 300-level like I do for an extra challenge,” an NC State fan tweeted at me in response.

With the rise of television and online streaming of games, what really is the difference of that fan in particular watching the game at home or in the 300-level seats, where he can barely make out the forms of players down below? Is the in-stadium environment really enough to make up for that?

Some say it’s winning. But NC State has generated a ton of excitement among its fanbase, and it’s their best team in years, and even they were 4,000 under capacity last night for their biggest non-conference home game. So it’s not just winning, or excitement, or anything like that.

Wake Forest AD Ron Wellman said yesterday that Jeff Bzdelik and Wake Forest will see bigger crowds once he starts winning. Attendance has dropped so alarmingly there in the last few years that Bzdelik and the Deacons would likely have to go on an ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament run to re-capture the fan’s imagination.

One of the more exceptions is Cameron Indoor. There’s not a bad seat in there, and fans don’t feel that the atmosphere of a game in person there can be replicated at home. And even still, Duke has had some attendance problems over the last few years, among the students especially.

Even when the fans do fill it up completely, Coach K has not been always pleased with the atmosphere. He sometimes comes out after halftime encouraging the fans and students to make more noise. When the crowd was deafening against Ohio State, Coach K made a point of reminding the fan base via the media that it could be like that every game, and perhaps it used to be.

I’m a huge advocate of the in-person game experience. You see, hear and feel things that you can’t when watching on television. For those who were at, say, the Duke-Carolina game in 2005, could you have imagined merely watching that on television and feeling the same way you did about it? Probably not.

It’s worth remembering how the crowd and the team fed off of each other in that game. If any fans still think the players somehow owe them a good product by their attendance at a game, remember that you as a fan have a responsibility too. Don’t sit on your hands the whole game, waiting for something to happen. Help make something happen. 


  1. Jerry Hollingsworth's avatar
    Jerry Hollingsworth
    | Permalink
    Coach Williams and the entire athletics department should be ashamed of the series of non-competitive home games on the schedule this season. I, for one, resent having McNeese State in the season ticket package and have resented being asked to pay for the other non-conference patsies in the season package.

    I can't get anyone to take the tickets off my hands for free to watch Florida Atlantic and Gardner Webb when I find I can't attend.

    Sell these to the general public during a special promotion before the season begins, don't extort the season ticket holders. And if the general public will not buy, get the dogs off the home schedule!
  2. John Avery's avatar
    John Avery
    | Permalink
    There's been a big decline, just look at the NCAA tournament in Greensboro last year. It used to be the hardest ticket in the area, and that was when only one local school would be there. Last year it was UNC and Duke and they didn't even have sellouts. I've been curious to know why there has been a decline in general.
  3. Jason's avatar
    | Permalink

    I do not think the athletics department should be ashamed of the scheduling for this season. Why would they intentionally put a young, inexperienced team against a brutal schedule? Consider that UNC is one of the very few power programs to play true road games every year (2012 - @ Long Beach State, 2011 - @ UNLV in Vegas, 2010 - @ Texas in Cowboy Stadium, 2009 - @ College of Charleston), just to name a few. When was the last time Duke traveled to an opponent's campus when it was not the ACC Big Ten Challenge? Answer, they don't. Kentucky doesn't either. Last year Kentucky got beat at Indiana and Calipari took them off the schedule.

    UNC plays a true home-home series every year with a top program. Last decade, Kentucky. Prior to that, a four year series with Uconn. No other top Program in the country does that. Syracuse? Doesn't leave NY. UNC has nothing to be ashamed of. This young teams needs the confidence of learning how to win.
  4. Mark's avatar
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    I am surprised people really have to ask or wonder about the decline. I think it is most definitely the result of the economy. People are struggling to buy milk. Fans in general, not just alumni help fill up these arenas. When it comes down to it, people would rather provide for their families. NASCAR, College Football, and other sports have suffered too.
  5. R.L. Bynum's avatar
    R.L. Bynum
    | Permalink
    It has a lot to do with ticket prices.

    Contrast the pricing structure of the Carolina Hurricanes to the Tar Heels. At Canes games (well, when they actually had games), the farther away you are from the ice, the cheaper the ticket costs. At UNC games, the price of the actual ticket (I realize there other monetary factors in being able to buy the ticket) is the same regardless of where you sit.

    I'd love to take my family to lots of UNC games, but it's just too expensive. At home, I have my HDTV, no parking fees or traffic hassles, already paid-for food and I'm home right after the game.

    I do miss the in-game experience. When I'm at the game, though, I miss the banter among fans and the media on Twitter.
  6. Jerry Hollingsworth's avatar
    Jerry Hollingsworth
    | Permalink
    In repeat for Jason.
    I have no problem with the scheduling, just the inclusion of non-competitive home games in the season ticket package.

    I say again: Sell these non-competive games to the general public (As a donor to the building fund I have a right to buy these tickets. Give me the option, then sell to the general public) or give the worthless tickets to local schools, charities, boys & girls clubs, food banks, anything but make me buy dog tickets after my (admittedly small) donationI helped build the Dean E Smith Student activities Center.

    I can't believe Dean would have scheduled this way. Why, besides money, do we have 16 home games? Cut out four dogs, twelve home games would be fine. Play the dogs on the road!
  7. justwayne's avatar
    | Permalink
    As an alum I see a gender problem(duck)The dome is huge, the town is (still) small the makeup of the student body has changed to weighted female. not complaining if I m a male student but I re member the upper and lower quads all male at the time plus old west/east (all male)pouring out for ALL games at carmichael.i don t believe the girls have the diehard spirit that is needed to fill AND FEEL the crowd. wayne pressley 74
  8. sandhillenka's avatar
    | Permalink
    justwayne has identified the problem with dead-on accuracy. The alumni association warned about this in 1989 so admission policy was changed to admit more males. But, this was soon swept aside by the tide of political correctness that continues to engulf UNC.
  9. Adam Lucas's avatar
    Adam Lucas
    | Permalink
    Regarding "I can't believe Dean would've scheduled this way."

    First full year of Smith Center (86-87), UNC hosted Stetson East Tennessee State and Jacksonville, plus played Furman in Charlotte.

    Second full year, UNC hosted Stetson, SMU and LaSalle.

    Third full year was a sensational nonconference home schedule: Georgia, Stanford, Vanderbilt, UCLA and Iowa. Wow.

    Fourth full year, UNC hosted Central Florida, Towson State, DePaul (well after their peak), ODU and Pepperdine.

    The point being that those games have always been on the schedule. And the rise in exempt tournaments--which is dictated almost solely by ESPN, a powerhouse you can't fight if you want college basketball exposure--means many of the marquee nonconference games are always going to be at neutral locations.

    You do have the option of not buying those games: you can choose not to purchase season tickets and just buy the games you want.

    There's no option of "cutting four home games" because the athletic department needs that revenue. Every home game is a tremendous boost for the bottom line, which in turn helps fund teams like the national champion women's soccer squad or the baseball team that is a regular participant in the College World Series.
  10. Joe's avatar
    | Permalink
    You're seeing decrease attendance in all sports due to the proliferation of HDTVs. You can get a good HDTV for less than $500 now. People are much more content to sit on the couch and watch the game on TV instead of spending a lot of time and money to go to a game. Why would you want to drive down to the arena, pay for parking, pay $50 for an upper level ticket and pay a ridiculous amount for subpar food and drinks when you can just watch in the comfort of your own home?

    I think this is less of a problem with football because there are fewer games and they are all on Saturdays. For basketball, it's a different story as there are more games and many take place during the work week. It's a minimum 3 hour commitment to attend a game, so people are more likely to watch on TV at home for games during the week, especially if its against an non-marquee opponent.
  11. Ed Page's avatar
    Ed Page
    | Permalink
    Can't believe the obvious hasn't been mentioned yet, but the economy sucks. It has sucked for years. Add that to the aforementioned problems of decline in male student body, proliferation of HDTVs and add in a predictably down year and lingering academic scandal news hurting general goodwill, and the current attendance issues at UNC aren't really that surprising.

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