Go Figure: Attendance Woes
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.