SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s four biggest college basketball programs convened on Tuesday with intentions of promoting the second annual Beehive Classic. Proceedings were aired on Facebook Live, which was part of the problem.
If you can catch it in the comfort of your home, why go out?
It’s no secret the college game has lost steam. The state’s most storied schools, for instance, have been slowly slipping in attendance. The product isn’t at a particularly high point right now, considering none made the NCAA Tournament last spring. That doesn’t mean there’s no interest. A lot of it is coming via the Larry H. Miller family, longtime college basketball fans and owners of Vivint Arena, where the second annual doubleheader will be played on Dec. 8.
If the Millers have it their way, college hoops in Utah will again be a hot ticket. While Utah, BYU, Utah State and Weber State are doing fairly well compared to their contemporaries, all have empty seats on game nights.
“I think we’ve got a great game,” said BYU coach Dave Rose. “But we’ve got some things we can really improve on.”
Like living on less?
That’s actually what it would take to bring the crowds back to what they once were.
Rose, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, Weber State’s Randy Rahe and Utah State’s Craig Smith all agree that television money, and availability of games via various media, have taken a toll on live crowds. Braving weather, finding parking and paying silly prices for food are reasons to skip live games. But there’s one big reason to attend.
“You’ll have a night of energy and emotion you can’t recreate anywhere else,” Rose said.
While Rose might be correct, many fans aren’t sold. Attendance has fallen nationwide since its peak in the 1990s. It dropped in 22 of the previous 27 years before rising by 285 per game last year. Until last season, attendance nationwide had dropped for 10 consecutive years.
How is your interest in college basketball overall?— Deseret News Sports (@desnewssports) August 22, 2018
How much better is watching a college basketball game live, rather than on a device or TV?— Deseret News Sports (@desnewssports) August 22, 2018
In fairness, the numbers aren’t hugely different. Last year’s national average of 5,084 was only a few hundred behind the 5,382 average 23 years ago. But it’s enough that the Millers didn’t want to watch old rivalries die, so last season they facilitated the Classic.
The format is simple. This year Utah and BYU meet at noon, with Weber vs. USU to follow. Last year Utah beat Utah State and BYU stopped Weber. Attendance was announced at 7,729, which got swallowed up in the 18,300-seat Vivint Arena. No one should have been surprised.
Of the Huntsman Center’s top single-game crowds, just one was played in the last 20 years. Only one of BYU’s 10 largest crowds occurred in the last quarter century. (BYU reduced the arena’s seating capacity from 23,106 to 18,987 in 2015.)
The Cougars remain one of the country’s better draws, having ranked in the top 25 in attendance every year except four since the Marriott Center opened.
Utah State’s attendance last year was 6,943, slightly up from the previous year but far below its high of 9,792 in 2009-10. Utah’s attendance last year was 11,710, down from its record of 14,281 in 1995-96. BYU’s 14,230 was good, but far off the high point of 22,505 in 1980-81. Weber averaged 10,429 in 1979-80 but was at 6,778 last season.
While the numbers fluctuate, depending on wins, the trend is undeniable.
“If you’ve got the chance to stay home and watch the game rather than drive half an hour, 40 minutes, and fight traffic, fight crowds, a lot of people are going to say ‘I’ll stay home and watch it on TV.’ So that’s a big part,” Weber State coach Randy Rahe said. “Hopefully, it will come back.”
Then there’s the problem of a wireless generation.
“Like Bill Belichick says, if they can’t look at it on ‘Snapface’ and ‘Instachat …’” USU’s Craig Smith began. Then he got to the point. “They want access. You’ve got to always keep evolving to keep those things in front of the new generation.”
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak thinks it’s a clear choice: How much TV money is worth the loss in attendance?
“That decision is one of the effects — that when you’re going to take all the TV money the leagues are getting, then you’re going to have to be willing to sacrifice some of the home crowds,” he said.
That decision is out of his hands. But there is one factor coaches can control.
“I know for us, attendance has been down,” USU’s Smith said. “But that’s one of our jobs, is to get that back up — and one way is winning.”