Longtime college basketball fan Dave Ellison could not believe his eyes.

Five minutes before a delayed tipoff at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center last Thursday, rows and rows of empty red seats greeted the Runnin’ Utes and the No. 9-ranked UCLA Bruins as they wrapped up pregame warmups.

“I can’t believe this place isn’t packed,” said Ellison, wearing a UCLA cap. “Even the lower bowl is only half-full.”

A nearby Utah fan’s response: “You aren’t from around here, are you? Attendance has been falling for years. It’s so sad.”

Granted, Thursday’s tipoff came around 9:15 p.m. MST, drawing the most students since the BYU game on Nov. 27, but keeping a lot of other people with small children and/or alarm clocks away, apparently. Still, the same scene repeated itself — sans the large number of students in the stands — two days later when the Utes hosted another high-profile, nationally ranked opponent that had made a long NCAA Tournament run last spring, No. 16 USC, in the late afternoon.

Announced attendance, which Utah officials acknowledge is the number of tickets distributed (a standard practice in the industry) and not the actual number of people in the seats, was 7,785 for UCLA and 7,846 for USC.

Adding insult to injury: 45 miles down the road, rival BYU drew 12,748 fans (announced) for 10-7 San Diego on Thursday and 14,837 (announced) for 10-8 Portland on Saturday in West Coast Conference games at the Marriott Center. BYU required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for admission; Utah just required masks.

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“There’s no doubt about it, Utah was a basketball school, but it is definitely not a basketball school anymore,” says Utah graduate and longtime state of Utah resident Matthew Coles, who has been attending Utes games since before he was in college in the early 1990s and writing about them for The Associated Press for nearly as long.

“Having top-10 UCLA in here in the old days would have been a guaranteed sellout,” Coles said. “People would be going crazy. It is just not the same.”

It’s hard to blame the fanbase, considering Utah has sold out every football game since it joined the Pac-12. A night after the UCLA game last week some 10,752 fans showed up to watch the Red Rocks defeat Arizona State in a gymnastics meet.

It all begs the question(s): Why has Runnin’ Utes attendance been steadily slipping? And what can be done to get people back in the seats?

Fans watch the Utah Utes face the Washington State Cougars at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
Fans watch the Utah Utes face the Washington State Cougars at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The obvious answers are that the Utes have been losing too much, and that the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping people away. Fans were not allowed at any games last season, due to the coronavirus, when the Utes went 12-13 overall (8-5 at home) and coach Larry Krystkowiak was fired after his 10th season.

This season, new coach Craig Smith’s first, fans have been required to wear masks since the omicron variant flared up. And the young, thrown-together-late team is 8-13, 1-10 in Pac-12 play.

But even before then, and despite getting of to a 5-0 start, attendance was down (except for the BYU game, which drew 11,443 at the same time the BYU football team was playing at USC).

How much down?

As of Monday (Jan. 24), Utah’s average home attendance for 11 games was 7,511. In 2019-20, before the pandemic hit, it was 10,561. The Utes went 16-15 that year, 7-11 in conference play.

Don’t think winning matters? Consider that in 2015-16, the season after Utah’s Sweet 16 run, average attendance hit a high-water mark of 13,053 for the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center.

“The trend is pretty clear,” says longtime Utah fan Andrew Crowley, host of the Runnin’ Hoops podcast dedicated to Utes basketball. “Attendance is down, interest is down. There’s a lot of apathy that you can attribute to Larry’s last few years.”

It should be noted that Utah is not alone; attendance at college basketball games has been falling steadily throughout the country the past few decades, for a variety of universal reasons: every game is televised, late and/or inconsistent tipoff times, rising concessions and parking prices, and more.

“You’re competing against the couch and 80-inch TVs,” Scott Kull, Utah’s deputy athletic director, told the Deseret News in April 2020 when the school acknowledged that the black curtains installed above the concourse at the Huntsman Center five years ago would be closed for most games “to help the Utes’ competitive advantage and improve the fans experience” in the arena.

The lower bowl includes approximately 8,500 seats, meaning 6,500 seats are not available for purchase.

“It is my understanding that most of the lower-bowl tickets have been sold, but just aren’t being used (accounting for so many empty red seats),” Crowley said. “… the lower bowl has very few tickets available, and the prices are pretty high, so if they don’t open the curtains up (as they did for the BYU game), it makes it harder for people with young kids to afford (any) seats.”

A quick check of the Utahtickets.com website shows that there are some lower-bowl tickets available for all of Utah’s future games, but few in the $10 range. Most available seats range from $20 to $60.

Season ticket sales are also down considerably from that 2015-16 season, according to figures provided by the university’s sports information department.

In 2015-16 — that year after the Utes won two NCAA Tournament games and almost upset eventual champions Duke in a third — 7,789 season tickets were sold. That number dropped to 5,680 in the season before COVID (2019-20) and is just 5,100 this season as the Craig Smith era began on the hill.

“In the Krystkowiak years, the product got a little bit stale — even though they were decent and still winning some games,” said Coles, the AP writer who is now only assigned to cover games when a ranked team is in town, or the Utes are ranked. “It just wasn’t that exciting. Too much control, not a lot of creativity on offense.”

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Coles points to how Krystkowiak and his staff handled former Ute Kyle Kuzma, never letting the future NBA star show much of what he could do in Salt Lake City.

“The start times are a part of it as well,” Coles said. “It is an aging fan base. Some of these longtime Utah boosters, they will buy season tickets, but they won’t come to every game, let alone the 9 p.m. games. Then they don’t give away their tickets.”

Hence, empty red seats aplenty.

That explains why Utah can announce an attendance of 11,358 for the Washington State game in January 2019, when the curtain was closed, but admit to The Salt Lake Tribune that only 5,943 tickets were scanned that night.

As depressing as the situation sounds for Utah fans such as Crowley, who has season tickets and lives out of state but makes sure they are used when he can’t attend personally, it could be a lot worse.

Utah has been among the Pac-12’s attendance leaders since it joined the league, and still has the largest arena in the conference.

As of Monday, Utah’s average attendance of 7,511 was third in the Pac-12, behind only No. 3-ranked Arizona (12,753) and Arizona State (7,566). Mountain rival Colorado (6,715) is fourth, while perennially successful Oregon is fifth at 6,313.

Coles said the success of the Utah Jazz, and the “glaring” disparity between the talent in the pro and college games, is also a factor. Arizona, for instance, does not a share a market with an NBA team, like the Utes do.

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“Utah fans have been beaten down,” Coles said. “Back in the day when (Rick) Majerus was losing maybe one home game a year, they took it hard. Now they are more used to it. The losing, I think, is beating them down a little bit.”

Here are a few of their ideas why attendance is down, and what can be done to improve it:

Even the podcaster is peeved

Crowley, a 42-year-old Utah graduate from Washington, D.C., who now lives south of Denver, is so invested in Utah basketball that he started a weekly podcast dedicated to the team.

Crowley says there have been “a few pockets (of winning) here and there, but certainly nothing sustained” and that has led to the dip in attendance. In that same time span, he says, Utah football has soared to unprecedented heights, a factor that can’t be ignored. Entertainment dollars can only stretch so far.

“We are an event-driven society and Utah football is currently one of the biggest events in the state six times a year,” he says. “… To that end, given that the early part of hoops overlaps with the end of football, there is just no interest in basketball broadly until January at the earliest.”

Crowley said that Utah athletic director Mark Harlan has not signed a home-and-home agreement with a nonconference Power Five opponent since he replaced Chris Hill in June 2018, “so there aren’t even compelling games to go to” until conference play begins.

As previously mentioned, Crowley says the empty seats, especially those behind the benches most visible to television viewers, give the impression that seats are going unsold when they are really just not being used.

‘Rick Majerus is rolling over in his grave’

West Jordan’s Jon Erickson, 60, has been following Utah basketball for 20-plus years, through the “good times and the bad times,” he said. He went to the Washington State game on Jan. 8, a Saturday, and was disgusted by what he saw.

“The current team is by far the least energized, laziest team I’ve ever watched,” he said. “A few things slapped me in the face” from the experience.

“Parking is horrible,” Erickson said. “As the campus grows it seems like the new buildings are taking all the parking lots.”

Erickson also said he spent more for concessions than he did on his postgame meal. He said it is “crazy” how good the football program has become and how far the basketball program has fallen.

“I remember that place used to be rocking. Fans (were) so loud you couldn’t talk to the person next to you,” he said. “Both upper and lower bowls were overflowing with happy, cheering fans. Now you can hear the coaches as they talk to their teams. … I bet Rick Majerus is rolling over in his grave.”

Remodel the Huntsman Center?

Lifelong Utah fan Ross White graduated from the U. and lived in Salt Lake City for 20 years before moving to Danville, California. He says it might take more than just winning to get the fans back to the Huntsman Center.

White doesn’t want to blow the 52-year-old building up and start over, but he would like to see it remodeled in a similar way that Vivint Arena was refurbished and its interior redesigned a few years ago.

“The Huntsman is tired and out of date, but still could have a long life,” he said. “… The JMC needs a ‘New Mexico Pit-style’ renovation. Blow up the upper deck, remove it and create a wide and open concourse as you enter with tons of natural light, and mountain views.”

He suggests a small number of luxury suites on each side of center court, entertainment areas, bigger restrooms, more variety of concessions and incorporating “locker rooms for the e-gaming teams, allowing fans to watch and hold events within the new upper concourse.”

Reducing seating — which is the trend nationwide for schools building new arenas — would affect the gymnastic team’s 10,000-plus crowds, he acknowledges, but in turn making those tickets among the hottest in town.

Like Crowley said, better home nonconference games would help. White believes a renovated Huntsman Center might lure a Duke, North Carolina, Kansas or Kentucky west for a game or two.

“The right games packaged with smart scheduling during the winter could get opposing teams’ fans out for a weekend trip to see their team and ski Park City with some dialed-in marketing and promotion,” he said.

Player turnover

Steve Bafford, 61, has attended almost every Utah home game for the past 10 years, making the drive from Ogden. A season ticket holder, he watches every away game, too, and also follows recruiting and “really anything to do with the Runnin’ Utes.”

Baffford says the Utes have an “attendance problem” due to lack of continuity, lack of quality and lack of familiarity.

“In the age of free agency (transfer portal), too many Runnin’ Utes have regularly left the program,” Bafford said. “Each season there are so many new faces that it (is) hard for the average fan to know who is who.”

Utah has eight new faces this season, as every player from 2020-21 left except Branden Carlson, Riley Battin, Lahat Thioune, Jaxon Brenchley and walk-ons Eli Ballstaedt and Harrison Creer.

“We have had some good players, but really have not had the team talent to win on a consistent basis,” Bafford said. “Losing creates a vicious cycle, where recruits don’t want to play for losers, and losers can’t win without recruits.”

Utah needs to do a better job of letting the fans get to know the players, he said, while admitting that lack of continuity plays a role in that.

“Sports are similar to soap operas; the show has no meaning, and is not compelling, if you don’t know the backstory,” Bafford said. “Fans don’t support a team they don’t know.”

The program needs to retain star players, win more often, and give the fans more glimpses behind the scenes.

“No idea how or if they will do that, but until they do, Runnin’ Utes tickets will be easy to come by,” he concluded.