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Analysis: Why BYU basketball leads the nation in NIT attendance

The BYU basketball team has its sights set on a Tuesday night NIT matchup against Creighton, with a trip to New York’s Madison Square Garden on the line. Among the storylines for this game, attendance numbers, oddly enough, may be one of the most interesting.

The Creighton Bluejays hail from Omaha, Nebraska, from a campus with just over 8,000 students. They left the Missouri Valley conference a few years ago to join the ranks of other Catholic basketball schools that formed the new Big East.

What you may not know about Creighton is it’s the only non “Power-5 Conference” school to rank higher in attendance than BYU. In fact, last season the Bluejays averaged almost 18,000 fans per game, good for fifth place among all college teams. BYU saw just under 16,000 per contest, good for 11th place. Creighton’s fan support is all the more remarkable considering their relatively small student and alumni base, which pales compared to BYU and the other high-attendance programs.

Luckily for the higher-seeded Cougars, this game is going to be played in front of a Provo crowd in a Marriott Center that has been formidable to opponents in this tournament.

Not your childhood NIT

This year’s NIT lineup is quite unusual in that the remaining teams are well known as schools typically found in the middle of March Madness.

Florida, Ohio State, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida State, Georgia Tech, BYU and Creighton have all been staples of the Big Dance in the last decade or two, but faltered down to the NIT in 2016.

While NCAA Tournament results have shown many of these NIT teams may have been more deserving of bids than some Pac-12 or AAC counterparts, having these programs in the NIT, while possibly a let-down for some, makes for a highly competitive tournament with strong fan bases.

In fact, Florida and Ohio State, both fairly recent national champs, played each other in Columbus on Sunday.

But do these fan bases turn out to watch their team in a second-fiddle event?

Better names, better attendance?

While many NCAA games are played in the middle of the workday, NIT games are made for TV in the ESPN family, mostly played in prime-time, making it easier for fans to attend. One would expect this to result in strong attendance numbers for the postseason tournament.

That’s not necessarily the case.

It’s important to note that the NIT sets pricing for its games, despite the venue for rounds 1-3 being the court of the higher seed. And no season-ticket holders are granted seats. This means every NIT ticket holder has to purchase a $15 seat 24-48 hours before tip-off.

In the first round of the 2016 NIT, average attendance for each game was 4,316, with just three games played in front of a crowd of over 7,000.

In fact, eight games saw fewer than 3,000 fans in attendance. And those host schools included major programs like Florida State, South Carolina and Georgia Tech to name a few.

On the other hand, some schools are able to deliver great crowds for NIT matchups. San Diego State, Virginia Tech, Creighton and Florida all managed to bring together over 6,000 fans for opening-round games on short notice.

But only one school has averaged over 10,000 fans per game in the NIT. That school is BYU. In fact, that’s more than the average regular season home attendance numbers for all but 36 NCAA teams last year, including Utah and UConn.

So why do some major programs garner lots of live-audience interest in NIT games while others struggle to get enough to make even a little noise?

Cougars rise and shout

What is it that leads BYU fans, especially, to support their team in multiple greater numbers than other programs with even bigger fan bases?

Often NIT teams are programs on the rise that may be playing in the postseason for the first time in years, like Virginia Tech this season. These fans may be far more excited to see their team continue to play than a school that felt dissed by the NCAA Tournament.

But the Cougars don’t fit this mold, having been to the NCAA Tournament eight times in the last nine years. Many fans saw this season as one that got away, with a team that had the offensive potential to make noise in the NCAA Tournament but failed to deliver consistent performance.

Others may cite a lack of competing interests in Provo driving fans to the Marriott center. While there may not have been many alternative activities for the tourney opener Wednesday night against UAB, the second-round game against Virginia Tech took place on a Friday night on the second day of March Madness. And the family-focused nature of BYU fans in general usually leads to heavy activity schedules outside the Cougar sports lineup.

Maybe BYU fans love sports in general more than their counterpart fan bases? After all, on the same night BYU took down ACC foe Virginia Tech in men’s basketball, the men’s volleyball team saw another packed house of over 3,300 watch it take on Pepperdine. The volleyball team consistently leads the country in attendance.

The Cougars on the gridiron play before crowds that are in the top 35 for attendance in the FBS, and women’s soccer has become a popular activity in Provo. Across the board, BYU fans seem to flock to sporting events at a healthy clip.

Product development

What may be less obvious to those on the outside looking in at BYU basketball’s high attendance marks is the fact that the product in the Marriott Center delivers high value.

A recent renovation to the basketball arena removed less-than-comfy (and less-than pretty) yellow seats and replaced them wish cushy, roomy blue ones. Along with the leg room came a $4 million scoreboard that provides excellent views across the arena, giving fans an entirely new feel for basketball in Provo.

The scoreboard and the seats are really the icing on the cake, however. The product on the court may be the most attractive part of the experience.

BYU boasts the 7th most prolific scoring offense in the country, putting up 83.9 points per game with a run-and-gun style that gets fans on their feet and builds anticipation for deep 3-pointers.

The engine for that potent offense may be a big reason for this year’s healthy and raucous NIT crowds at BYU: Kyle Collinsworth.

The senior Cougar point guard owns the NCAA record for triple-doubles in a season and career. He put up another such effort in the first round against UAB and nearly reached that pinnacle again against Virginia Tech. Collinsworth is fifth in the nation in assists per game and leads the team in rebounds, too.

He’s must-see viewing on his own, and each game in the Marriott Center could be his last.

With Creighton coming to town Tuesday, fans are already filling the arena, with multiple Twitter reports saying the lower part of the arena was sold out before tickets were offered to the general public.

Whether it’s to watch Collinsworth lead an offensive battle or just take part in the atmosphere, one thing’s for sure: The appetite for basketball in Provo is as healthy as anywhere in the country. And with the talent hitting the roster for next year’s team, fans in Provo are likely to line up in even greater numbers.

Ryan Teeples, twitter.com/SportsGuyRyan, is a marketing consultant, full-time sports fan and owner of Ryan Teeples Consulting Inc. (RyanTeeples.com). He regularly contributes to publications across the Web.