Section 17 in Duke's cozy Cameron Indoor Stadium is sacred ground in college basketball. The 1,200-seat stretch of bleachers across the court from the team benches is home to the Cameron Crazies, Duke’s student section that’s as big a part of college basketball as the home-court advantage, Dickie V and, dare we say, March Madness. Yet Cameron hasn’t been immune to a problem seen across the country: falling attendance.
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CHAMPAIGN — Section 17 in Duke's cozy Cameron Indoor Stadium is sacred ground in college basketball.
The 1,200-seat stretch of bleachers across the court from the team benches is home to the Cameron Crazies, Duke’s student section that’s as big a part of college basketball as the home-court advantage, Dickie V and, dare we say, March Madness. Yet Cameron hasn’t been immune to a problem seen across the country: falling attendance.
Duke sometimes sells 550 unused student seats in Section 17 to adult fans to keep Cameron full, and that reflects a trend: It’s easier to get a ticket to a college basketball game these days.
"Part of the discussion is, 'Hey, if it’s not happening at Duke, we're all in trouble,'' said Bradley athletic director Michael Cross.
College basketball attendance averages fell for the fifth consecutive season. According to a study conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly one in every five Division I men’s basketball programs saw its attendance fall by 20 percent or more over the past four seasons. Including the regular season and NCAA tournament, overall attendance fell by an average of 348 fans per game since 2007.
The slide is a growing topic among college coaches and administrators.
"There's always a concern when you have revenue streams going down,'' said Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin.
Sometimes the decline in attendance is based on the product on the court. Otherwise, it's blamed on the economy, a regular season overshadowed by March Madness or the saturation of games on television, not to mention the HD home theaters that turn a couch into a luxury box. Late-night made-for-TV game times and the transient nature of today’s game also play a role.
Basketball ticket revenue often accounts for 5 to 10 percent of a major-college athletic budget.
Nothing sells tickets like putting a winner on the floor. When Dee, Deron and the gang were the big deal at Illinois in 2005, Assembly Hall was packed. The school put together a streak of 60 consecutive sellouts and had an average capacity crowd of 16,618 for three seasons, ending in 2008. At one point, the Illini filled the Hall with season ticket holders for four consecutive years and ranked ninth nationally in attendance.
Last season, Illinois stood 14th in the country after falling to an average of 14,986. The number, like elsewhere, reflected tickets sold.
"If you're spending a lot on marketing and not having success on the field of competition, you're not moving the needle a lot,'' said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
Despite the saturation of the Big Ten Network in the conference footprint, the league led national attendance numbers for the 36th straight year while averaging 12,868 fans per game.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Coast Conference ranked fifth nationally among conferences after falling 12 percent in the past four years to 9,876 per game. The Pac-12 dropped to 7,143 — a 17 percent loss over the same span — in part because of the struggles on the court. The Big East and SEC also have seen slight declines, while the Big 12 remained steady.
But winning isn't everything. Florida State finished third in the ACC but had an 8 percent drop in ticket sales from the previous year. And let's not forget Section 17 at Duke.
March Madness is the elephant in the room. To the casual fan, it’s the only time to watch college hoops.
"The regular season isn’t going to be as attractive,'' said Jim Haney, the executive director of the National Association of College Basketball Coaches. "Maybe not as much to the avid fan, but the casual fan is more intrigued by a championship than he is necessarily with the regular season.''
The number of televised games and the late-night tipoffs often keep folks at home. With HD, Xbox, the Internet and multiple games at the touch of the remote control, perhaps there’s nothing more fan friendly than the couch.
"The longer they’re at home at night, the harder it is to get them out and get them into your building,'' Cross said.
Cross says game times play a key role: With TV setting so many late tipoffs, it hurts attendance at the benefit of more TV coverage.
"If I choose to go to a game at 9 on a Monday night, I’ve got to be pretty darn invested,'' Cross said. "TV has become so much of a driver in the decision-making. I don’t even think it gets debated any more. If ESPN says play at 9 o’clock, I don’t know if people are discussing, 'No, we don’t want to do it.' People want that exposure.''
The glut runs for five months. The season starts in early November and runs into April.
"It's a supply-and-demand thing. There's a ton of supply out there now,'' said Illinois coach John Groce. "When we were growing up, you saw a Big Ten game, or Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA or North Carolina.''
Groce coached at mid-major Ohio last season, and the Bobcats were shown on five different outlets.
Power conferences overcome loss in ticket sales with massive TV deals, such as the Big Ten Network paying each conference school $7.9 million last season.
Rule No. 1 framed on Cross' wall: "The more prosperous a sport becomes, the more likely it is to destroy the reasons for its prosperity.''
Somewhere, the integrity and traditions that made the game so great were lost in the money. It goes much further than NCAA violations from coaches looking to cash a big paycheck. It's schools jumping to different conferences and thus eliminating long-standing rivalries; players leaving after one year for the NBA or another school for more playing time; and a schedule loaded with patsies before Christmas.
At Southern Illinois, there's plenty of rebuilding to do after former Salukis coach Chris Lowery only won 36 games over the previous three seasons. Attendance dropped at SIU Arena from 7,743 during the run to the Sweet 16 in 2007 to 3,299 last season.
Coach Barry Hinson signed a contract paying him $250,000 a season before increases in the next three seasons. His main bonus incentive comes from ticket revenue. Once SIU reaches $850,000 in ticket revenue per season, Hinson gets a bump. It’s one way an athletic department strapped for cash can repay a successful coach.
"If we're making money, Barry is sharing in the money,'' said SIU athletic director Mario Moccia. "That also asks the coach to keep promoting to come out to the ballgames.''
Mid-majors often have a smaller number of home games because they don’t have revenues to buy guarantee dates. Thus, home games could be a bigger deal, especially in a smaller market with less competition from TV coverage or elsewhere for the entertainment dollar.
"It’s kind of like, 'You don’t want to miss any home games,' '' Moccia said. "This is the place to be. I don't feel TV hurts us.''
That's the battle, from Duke's Section 17 to Carbondale and all points in between.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Johnsupinie.