In sports we often measure the interest people have in a team with attendance figures. If a team is consistently selling out its arena, it's deemed a success. If the bleachers or plastic-backed chairs are empty, the team looks pitiful. A winning team, the conventional thinking goes, will attract more people to games. Lose, and your turnstile figures plummet. More often than not, this philosophy holds up for every sport on all levels. But for small college basketball programs, it's not always as easy as "win and get the people in."
There could be numerous reasons as to why mid-major programs struggle to have packed audiences game-in and game-out. The simple fact that marquee teams - the ones whose name alone may draw in the casual fan - rarely play away from home during the non-conference season is one such. Another may be conference affiliation; after all, even if your team is winning on a consistent basis, is it really worth it to go to a game against the conference doormat? A more dominating reason, perhaps, is that most people just don't follow what's going on at this level. For them, storylines involving the Lakers and Colts and Longhorns of the world are more appealing than those from the Jackrabbits and Thunderbirds and Kangaroos with which we are acquainted.
Looking at attendance averages from the 2009-10 season in The Summit League, this analysis tends to hold up well. Of the 10 conference members, only two had an average attendance equaling half of their arena's capacity. Even with that said, those two should be looked at closely. IUPUI, which averaged 1,316 attendees per game, only fits 1,215 in its Jungle gym. The inflated figure probably includes "home" games played at Conseco Fieldhouse, not unlike how OU's work when including matches at The Palace of Auburn Hills. While the Jaguars should be commended for fielding a team strong enough to pack its gym for every game, it should be noted that their modest capacity gives them a leg-up in this discussion.
Like IUPUI, Oakland University had a stunning occupancy rate of 91% for the season, a number calculated from the O'Rena's listed capacity of 3,000. However, anyone who follows the Golden Grizzlies knows the team regularly has crowds of more than 3k, and the all-time attendance record is upwards of 4,000. Using a modified capacity of 3,500, OU still fills 78% of seats per game; at 4,000 it drops to 68%. No matter the case, Oakland ranks second in The Summit League.
Aside from those two cases, it seems the occupancy rate for most schools in the conference suffers because their arenas are simply too big. IPFW and UMKC's 13,000 and 9,200 seat mammoths, respectively, are considerably big for two schools hanging around .500 every season. On the other hand, WIU's ability to fill only 19% of its 5,000+ seat Western Hall is more than likely due to its poor record over the past few years. There is a reason the teams at the top of this list are those competing for the conference crown every year. Other thoughts on these figures, in bulleted form:
- In this analysis, the biggest surprise has to be Southern Utah. Centrum Arena can hold 5,300 according to the team's website, and the team managed to average 2,098 fans per game, good for a rate of 40%. Basketball is king in Utah (and SUU has an advantage at home), but I will admit that I never suspected SUU to have this much support considering their recent performances on the court. I have lobbied in the past for SUU to move on to a better-fitting league, but this bit of information shines some light on the otherwise gloomy program.
- Oral Roberts blows every other Summit school out of the water with its 4,662 person average per game. And that is for an arena that can hold up to 10,575 fans! ORU set the standard for play on the court for much of the middle of the past decade, but their fan and community support continues to be the bar today. If ORU ever makes a serious move to leave The Summit League, their ability to attract large audiences will surely be one reason why.
- OU fans have long wondered whether the O'Rena is a big enough arena for the team, especially considering the progress the program has achieved as of late. This data proves that it is a good fit, for now. If anything larger were ever proposed, I'd like to see it be in the same vein as Frost and Bison Sports Arena, the homes of the two Dakota schools. Even with averages close to OU, each school is capable of selling out their roughly 6,000 seats for big games. It'd be pretty incredible if OU could draw 5,000-6,000 people per game for an entire season, but if the program had an arena that size, it'd be easier to market Rochester as a destination for the kind of opposing teams that could bring in the extra fans needed to make it viable.
- Western Illinois is currently stuck on the steepest incline in its uphill battle to find relevance in The Summit League. Reading about their basketball history is downright sad, but fortunately, they have a great coach in Jim Molinari and seem to be attracting players that fit well with his system. One can only hope they are able to attract bigger audiences this year, if not only to give the players some fans to play for.
- Poor Centenary. It is difficult to determine what Centenary's legacy will be in this conference, if any. It's both sad (long-time DI school) and a relief (lots of money for travel) to see them leave, but if it had to happen, it would have been great to go out with a bang. Their 881 average, however, shows they will not.
As the table shows, the conference as a whole had a total average of 2,137 attendees per game, good for approximately 45% of seats sold. While The Summit League isn't challenging the Missouri Valley Conference in this statistical department anytime soon, it's not quite terrible. With improved stability and competitiveness, the league should see this number jump up over the next few seasons.