A Note to the NCAA: Here’s Why College Basketball Attendance Is Down


It’s the time of year for office pools and for articles about what’s wrong with college basketball in general and the March NCAA tournament in particular.  Most of the arguments for both are covered by Steve Wieberg in Friday’s USA Today.
“Attendance, a key vital sign in any sport, is slipping in college arenas as fans have digital access to games in ways that would have seemed futuristic just a decade ago. Young superstars — think Texas phenom and now Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant — play at the collegiate level for one year before seeking NBA riches,” writes Wieberg.

“Scandals have tarnished marquee schools (Connecticut and Syracuse), while conference realignments have buried rich and storied rivalries (Kansas vs. Missouri). And coaches’ salaries continue to soar, reinforcing the view — fair or not — that college hoops is first a business.”

Where to begin? Yes, attendance is slipping in both regular season games and the NCAA tournament. I’ll get back to that in a minute. Concerning the young superstars who leave college early, that, of course, is a trend which has been going on now for well over 20 years. The question is why would it be affecting the game now?

“Scandals have tarnished marquee schools …” I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that not a single fan who follows UConn or Syracuse stays home from a game because of the scandals.

Conference realignments hurting storied rivalries? Well, perhaps, but how many of those old-time rivalries are there? Enough to make a dent in overall attendance? I don’t think so. And anyway, the NCAA tournament has never been about rivalries.

As for “coaches’ salaries continuing to soar, reinforcing the view — fair or not — that college hoops is first a business,” what exactly is the argument to be made that college basketball is not business first? It’s certainly a business first for the people who put on the tournament which nets hundreds of millions for the NCAA and, ultimately, the schools. The players are the only people involved who are amateurs.

NCAA tournament ratings in 2011 were the lowest since 2007, and attendance was down to slightly over 77% capacity, the lowest in more than two decades. Wieberg apparently believes that “technology is almost certainly taking a toll. With TV, Internet- live streaming and other viewing options, there’s less incentive to pay for seats in the stands. Fans remain fans – just from a digital distance.”

Essentially this is the same argument that major league baseball owners were making in the early 1950s, that television would keep people from going games. For more than half a century, fans have been able to follow games without going to the stadium –remember back in the 1960s when you could see fans in the stands holding transistor radios to their ears to hear the broadcasts and check scores of other games? No one ever fretted about radio was hurting attendance at the ballparks.

And today, if the prospect of sitting in your living room and watching a game in HD surround sound doesn’t discourage you from buying a ticket, why would the option of live streaming keep you home?

As for decline of interest in the regular season, I’m going to go with a reason offered by Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby: “The regular season in college basketball is exceedingly irrelevant … the tournament is the Holy Grail, and everything else is just prelude.” Swish.

There’s another reason for declining attendance that’s obvious to fans even if sportswriters and athletic directors haven’t yet grasped it, namely the economy and the price of tickets – or for that matter, the overall cost of going to a game.

If attendance has been steadily declining since 2007, some of the athletic departments that set the ticket prices might want to consult their school’s economics and history departments to find out what happened in 2008 to limit fans’ disposal income.


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