On the afternoon of Saturday, February 13, the Colorado Buffaloes pulled out a thrilling 81-80 victory over the University of Washington at the Coors Events Center. It vaulted them past the Huskies in the Pac-12 standings and by the end of the weekend the Buffs were tied with Utah for 3rd place in the conference. It also gave them their 19th win of the regular season, something that had been accomplished just eight times previously in school history.
A paid crowd of 9,476 was on hand, with around 8,500 actual warm bodies in attendance - both are numbers that many schools in the conference would be thrilled with, especially for a noon game. It's a full 2,000 people more than the attendance for Washington State on Thursday night, which was the first conference game since January of 2012 to draw fewer than 8,000 fans.
Compared to that, Saturday's game seemed to be a step in the right direction, with only about 1500 empty seats in the 11,000 seat arena. However, a vast majority of those empty seats were located on one end of the arena: the student section. There couldn't have been more than 500 or 600 students in attendance. "Half full" would have been a charitable way to describe sections 13 through 17. Now, there is somewhat of a built-in excuse, as noon is a very early start for a college student (I had to set an alarm). If this was an isolated incident, I might be able to brush it off as a result of the start time. The unfortunate thing is that it's not at all isolated.
Against Washington State on Thursday night, the C-Unit was maybe half full. This was an 8 o'clock game on "Thirsty Thursday". Perfect timing if you wanted to go out drinking afterwards. There were even tickets available for non-sports pass holders for $1. It seemed like the perfect recipe for a full, rowdy student section. It didn't happen.
The previous homestand saw a 7pm game on a Wednesday against Stanford and a 3pm game on a Sunday against Cal that had similar turnouts, with the students failing to even reach the top of section 15 behind the basket, never mind putting people over in sections 17 or 18. The combined crowds from those four games and the Oregon game (which was on a Broncos Sunday) might have filled the student section twice over. The Buffaloes won every single one of those games, as well as the game against Oregon State, which saw the only large student section of the entire season.
The Oregon State game seemed to validate my defense of the students. Namely, that the games had been at times they couldn't go and that once conference play got rolling everything would be fine. However, the four games since then have left me scrambling for explanations because it just doesn't seem to add up. The Buffs have only lost one game at home all year. They're 19-7 and well on their way to an NCAA tournament berth. The last time they got to 19 wins in fewer games was in 1969. So where, then, are the packed, rowdy student sections that had become so regular at Coors in recent years?
There isn't an easy answer to that question, but in an attempt to find one I'm going to travel back in time in order to show how we got to this point.
Dateline: January 12, 2010
It's the first Big 12 home game for the Buffs; having just lost in respectable fashion on the road against #2 Texas. One season removed from losing the most games in school history, this year's team looks somewhat promising, with freshman star Alec Burks providing some excitement alongside junior Cory Higgins. #22 Baylor is in town, and a good (for those days) crowd of almost 7,000 is in attendance. Then the Buffs do something no one is expecting: they win. It's a huge moment for the program and the first win over a ranked team in three years. Fans quickly rush to snatch up the dirt-cheap tickets remaining for the next game against #13 Kansas State, and on January 16th the Buffs play before a sold out crowd against someone other than Kansas for the first time in years.
CU would come close but eventually lose that game, as well as an overtime contest against #1 Kansas a few weeks later, but there was a sense that the team was going somewhere, and the crowds stayed strong for the rest of the season. You have to remember that this was in the aftermath of a football season where the team won three games after Dan Hawkins had guaranteed ten. Fans were desperate for something to cheer for, and they saw a basketball team that was defying expectations instead of failing to live up to them. Students who had come to CU expecting a good football team adopted the basketball team instead, and they found a welcoming core group that already had traditions and culture in place.
The Buffs finish the Big 12 season 6-10, but there is optimism for the future and the crowds coming to the CEC are louder and more engaged than they have been in years.
★ ★ ★
Dateline: January 8, 2011
For the second year in a row, the Buffs open up conference play with a win over a ranked team. This time it's #8 Missouri. The student section is packed to the gills. The crowd of 8,694 will rank as CU's third smallest turnout of the conference season. A road win against #20 Kansas State sets the hype machine in full swing, and Coors is sold out for 5 of the team's final 7 regular season games, including a win over #5 Texas. CU basketball is, for the first time in years, officially cool. With the firing of Dan Hawkins and the football program in freefall, basketball becomes the thing to do in Boulder.
Despite being snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee, the Buffs keep their chins up and win three games in the NIT before progressively larger crowds and packed student sections. Despite losing Alec Burks and Cory Higgins to the NBA, hopes are high that the program will continue to make strides the following season.
★ ★ ★
In 2011-12, the Buffs move to a new conference, and the timing couldn't be better. After running a gauntlet of a schedule the previous year, the Buffs don't play a single ranked team in their first season in the Pac-12. They compete for the conference title for most of the season, before losing three of their final four games. In a year where the Pac-12 seems destined to be a one-bid league, CU finishes in sixth. Another trip to the NIT appears to be on the horizon, and some people wonder if the program has plateaud. The only chance the Buffs have of dancing is to win the Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles...
Dateline: March 7, 2012
Ahead of the tournament, the athletic department pays for tickets, travel and accommodations for the top 50 student fans (based on attendance). This is a huge and previously unprecedented step, and it gives the Buffs a home court advantage in the mostly empty confines of Staples Center.
Of course, you know what happens next. CU wins four games in as many days, Carlon Brown dunks on everyone, and the team heads to their first NCAA tournament since 2003.
Then, as an 11 seed playing 6th seeded and 23rd ranked UNLV, the Buffs win their first tournament game since Chauncey Billups wore the black and gold. Hundreds of students pay a meager $50 fee for a bus trip down to the game in Albuquerque, and the fight song can be heard ringing out in the final moments of CU's 68-64 victory. A loss to #9 Baylor two days later does nothing to take the shine off of the Buffs' season.
★ ★ ★
The hype continues into the offseason, and when the football team plays arguably their worst season in history, the anticipation for the basketball season to begin reaches previously unheard of levels. Season ticket sales go through the roof. In the season opener on November 9 against Wofford, a near-sellout crowd and a full student section watch as a "2012 Pac-12 Champions" plaque is unveiled. After a decade where drawing 10,000 fans to Coors was a once-a-year event, the Buffs average over 10,300 fans per game in the 2012-13 season, including an all-time Coors Events Center record of 11,708 against CSU. The student section is packed almost every single game.
That's the student section against Texas Southern. Yes, really. Texas Southern on a Tuesday night. Basketball is officially cool.
The Buffs earn an at-large NCAA tournament bid and briefly flirt with the AP top 25 for the first time in 15 years. The sky seems to be the limit. On Valentine's Day, the team defeats #9 Arizona and the students storm the court. Three weeks later, the Buffs crush #19 Oregon by 23 points.
There's no dream ending to the 2013 season, however, as the team wins just one game in the Pac-12 tournament before bowing out in the first round of the NCAAs against Illinois. Team star Andre Roberson leaves for the NBA after his junior season.
★ ★ ★
Even with the disappointment of the NCAA tournament, expectations for next year are very high and season tickets sell out again. In the middle of brutal football losses, students tell freshmen about how amazing basketball will be once it starts. They're even playing Kansas again this year...
Still, the hype isn't quite the same as the previous year, and with an uninspiring early non-conference schedule, including games against Jackson State at 10AM and a season opener against Tennessee-Martin on a Broncos Sunday afternoon, attendance isn't what it has been, especially in the student section.
The students who were freshmen when CU first beat Baylor have graduated. The seniors are the only ones who remember the team playing in the Big 12. Still, there is a near riot when students are "forced" to attend a women's basketball game in order to get tickets for the Kansas game. Tickets on StubHub for the general public start at over $100, a virtually unheard of number for CU basketball. Kansas enters the game ranked #6, and the Buffs are receiving votes in the AP poll after an 8-game winning streak.
Dateline: December 7, 2013
On a brutally cold, overcast morning, students line up by the hundreds outside of Coors Events Center. By the time the doors open at noon, the line stretches halfway around the building. The student section is full 45 minutes before tipoff. A few hours later, many of those students will be on the court after the greatest regular season victory in CU basketball history. In attendance are 11,113 fans, about 10,000 of whom are dressed in CU black. The win catapults the Buffs into the top 25, and CU basketball is officially on the national map.
Over winter break, CU makes students who will be in town for the games against Georgia, Oregon State and Oregon claim their tickets online in advance so that they can sell tickets in the student section to the general public. The three games average about 10,400 fans each and, after defeating #10 Oregon, the Buffs enter the AP top 15 for the first time since 1997.
The Spencer Dinwiddie injury is a crushing blow, but Coors is still packed with 10,802 fans dressed in white, Pepsi branded t-shirts to see the now 21st ranked Buffs take on #25 UCLA.
The team loses for the first time at home all season, and the following games against USC, Utah and both Washington schools see crowds under 10,000 and underwhelming student sections.
Tad Boyle issues a challenge to the C-Unit to show up for the February 19th matchup against Arizona State, and show up they do. A packed student section (waving white towels handed out before the game) energizes the crowd for the 9pm game, and the Buffs win.
Though the injury to Dinwiddie somewhat diminishes the hype for the matchup against Arizona on February 22, the arrival of College GameDay in Boulder for the first time adds plenty of excitement. The Buffs have been playing well, winning 5 of their last 6 games, and a victory against #4 Arizona would put them back into the top 25. Students have to claim tickets online in advance for this game, with priority given to the students who attended the most games during the season. With milder weather and a 7pm start time, the line is even longer than it was for the Kansas game, with some people getting in line immediately after the morning taping of College GameDay and staying there the entire day. There's a feeling that this could be another huge step forward for the program.
Dateline: February 22, 2014
The game is an unmitigated disaster, with the Buffs taking more than ten minutes to make a field goal and eventually suffering the worst home loss of the Tad Boyle era. It's the final home game of the season, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of every CU fan who witnessed it in person.
The athletic department still pays for Pac-12 Tournament tickets for the top 50 students, but they stop paying for transportation. Fewer students go. CU wins two games in that tournament before falling again to Arizona by 20 points, which is followed by an absolute drubbing at the hands of Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
A season in which the Buffs appeared destined to break through into the upper echelon of college basketball programs ended with consecutive embarrassments on the national stage and no postseason progress. After the season, CU once again loses its best player to the NBA, as Spencer Dinwiddie elects not to come back to play his senior season in Boulder.
★ ★ ★
Despite the disappointments, CU is picked third in the Pac-12 for the second consecutive year, and they find themselves just barely outside the top 25 when the season starts. Season tickets sell out once again, and freshmen students are told stories about how sick the Kansas game was and how the Buffs have a great basketball team that has made the tournament three years in a row (and it should have been four!). The season opener against Drexel is on a Friday night, and the students turn out in full force.
Then, at 11pm on a Monday night against Auburn, the student section is packed with half an hour to spare, with the students wearing free T-shirts reading "One Nation Under Tad" on the back with a black and gold version of the American flag on the front. Signs reading "Roll Tad" are printed, in addition to the usual "big heads" for the student to taunt Auburn with. An energetic performance by the team leads to a special student section that night. Someone in the front row declares it "the best student section in the country" and ESPN's announcers go nearly as far, giving the C-Unit a shoutout near the end of the broadcast. It appears as though the inconsistency of the previous year was just a blip, and that things are going to go back to the way they were.
A brutal loss at Wyoming takes the mood down a bit, and the crowds against the next three cupcake opponents are uninspiring. Still, CSU is coming to town and everyone is ready for another wild night at Coors.
Dateline: December 10, 2014
In what is becoming an annual tradition, 10,000 t-shirts, provided by Pepsi, are laid out before the game by student volunteers (including yours truly). This year, they're black.
The student section is packed by tipoff, but a peculiar number of empty yellow seats pepper the otherwise black mass of people. Paid attendance is still basically a sellout at 10,966, but the Keg is not overflowing with people the way it was two years earlier. Those in attendance witness a crushing 62-60 defeat, which drops the Buffs to 5-3 on the season serves as the first real indication that all is not well in Boulder.
Despite a disastrous 7-5 non-conference record, over 10,000 fans show up to watch the Buffs take on UCLA in the conference opener, which takes place over winter break. Coors hasn't been that full since.
The first game to take place after the students return from winter break is against Washington on January 22, and a nearly full student section is on hand, despite the Buffs having lost three games in a row. They are treated to a low scoring, sloppy game capped off by an Andrew Andrews dagger that wins the game for the Huskies 52-50. A 28 point drubbing at home against Utah is the final straw, and almost no students show up for the games against Cal or Stanford.
Having already seen the football team lose several times in gut wrenching fashion, the continued failures of the basketball team are too much to take. It's just not fun anymore. The general public turnout diminishes as well, though season tickets keep the overall numbers looking relatively healthy.
After starting conference play 2-0, the Buffs lose 9 of their next 12, and head into a nationally televised home matchup against #7 Arizona with a 12-14 (5-9) record, with hopes of even an NIT berth seeming bleak. Still, it is presumed that the fans will turn out in force for a game that has been sold out for months.
Dateline: February 26, 2015
On another bitterly cold Boulder day, I walk from my dorm to Coors at about 2 in the afternoon to stand in line with a few friends. When no one else joins us by 3:30 we decide to grab something to eat so we can warm ourselves up a bit. When we return at 4, we're still alone. Finally, at around 5pm, a handful of people start to line up behind us. By the time doors open at six there are perhaps 50 people. There's a scramble for seats in the first few rows, but when the dust settles there are only a few dozen students and no steady stream of new ones coming in. This was the first time I had ever experienced this at a matchup against a top ten team.
By tipoff, the student section is only at roughly 75% capacity. Far more concerning, however, are the thousands of empty seats in the rest of the arena. For a game that is technically the team's only standing room only sellout of the season (paid attendance 11,120), the crowd outside the student section is the smallest of the entire conference season. The fans simply decided it wasn't worth it to drive through the lightly falling snow to see what is likely to be a major blowout. For the first time in the Tad Boyle era, the public has no faith that the Buffs will win the game.
Their apathy is validated as the Buffs are embarrassed on their home floor for the second year in a row against Arizona; losing by 28 points this time - tied with the Utah game from a month earlier for the worst home loss of the Tad Boyle era.
Once again, students (including myself) leave the game early, with chants of "Ar-iz-ona" and "U-of-A" ringing in their ears. Three days later, only a few dozen of them show up for senior day against Arizona State. This would have been a bad enough ending to the season, but Tad Boyle surprised many by deciding to accept an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational tournament after failing to receive an invite to the NIT.
And so, on March 15, while many teams across the country were getting ready to play in the NCAA tournament, the Buffs took on Gardner-Webb at Coors Events Center. Far from the festive atmosphere of the NIT games four years earlier, the vibe inside the building is one of self-deprecation and disbelief. Are the Buffs really doing this? Is this how far we've fallen? In a bleak press conference after the Arizona game, Tad Boyle says that the Buffs are "not on the map of college basketball", and he's right. There are only 1,280 witnesses, plus whoever watches on an online live stream, to CU's nine point victory over Gardner-Webb.
Five days later, at a time when the previous three Buffs teams were playing in the NCAA tournament, CU loses on the road in the second round of the CBI against Seattle in a gym smaller than the one at my old high school. The season ends in humiliating fashion, with the Buffs knocked out of a tournament where the only justification for them playing was that they would probably win it.
Rising juniors Dustin Thomas and Jaron Hopkins transfer out of the program after the season. Thought to be keys to success for the future, the pair failed to develop and become emblematic of the plateauing that seems to have affected the program. During summer workouts, rising senior and team leader Xavier Johnson tears his achilles tendon and seems likely to miss the entire season.
The Buffs are picked seventh in the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll after consecutive years of being picked third. The national media is clearly of the opinion that things in Boulder will go back to "normal" after a few years of success. After all, this was a program that had made the NCAA tournament twice from 1970-2011. Why would they be able to sustain their success? Especially after already having shown signs of decline.
Despite the disappointment of the previous season, the athletic department raises prices on season tickets and single game tickets; apparently confident that fan support will continue unabated by recent history and despite the fact that attendance dipped slightly in both of the previous two seasons. For the first time in four years, season tickets fail to sell out.
Almost every student who was at CU when they last won a NCAA tournament game has now graduated. Only seniors remember the team beating Arizona, and only upperclassmen remember Askia Booker's shot against Kansas. Sophomores remember crushing losses to CSU, Washington, Utah and Arizona. The 30 point win over Auburn is a distant memory. Instead of being told "our football team sucks, but our basketball team is good", freshmen hear that "our sports are terrible".
★ ★ ★
The Buffs start the season with two games on the road, and the home opener isn't until November 20; which the latest date since the 2003-04 season. It's also the first Friday of Thanksgiving break, and many students aren't even in town. The C-Unit is mostly empty, and the overall paid attendance of 7,783 is the lowest since January 5, 2012. After not selling fewer than 8,000 tickets to any game for three consecutive seasons, the Buffs fall short of that number in each of their first five home games.
There are no more than a handful of students at any of them, but I urge people not to panic. Four of the games take place over Thanksgiving break, and the fifth is against Division II Fort Lewis. I tell myself that the empty seats in the rest of the arena can be chalked up to the usual hangover effect most teams experience after a bad season. Things will definitely go back to normal if the team can prove that this year will be different from the last.
A thrilling come from behind victory in Fort Collins against Colorado State gives the Buffs a seven game winning streak after a season opening loss to #7 Iowa State. It's clear that these are not the Buffs that everyone, CU fans included, thought they would be. At 7-1 with their only loss coming in a "neutral site" game against a top 10 team, Tad Boyle, who had called out the lack of attendance at the team's early games, calls for a sellout in the upcoming matchup against BYU. While not Kansas or CSU, it's still the most attractive home non-conference matchup of the season, and I (and many others) expect a near-capacity crowd to turn out on a Saturday night.
Dateline: December 12, 2015
The game does not sell out. In fact, it doesn't come particularly close. Paid attendance is 8,913, with a healthy contingent of BYU fans included in that total. The student section is roughly half full or half empty, depending on your point of view. The Buffs win the game and improve to 8-1. Afterwards, the excuses for the turnout begin to surface. For the students, the game was the night before the start of final exams. Although not every student has a final on Sunday, it's a reasonable excuse.
As for the general public, the main excuse seems to be that tickets were too expensive. Prices are 50% higher than every other non-conference game and the same as a conference game. In what will be a recurring theme for the rest of the season, $60 for the cheapest chairback is too steep a price for many fans. Apparently the athletic department felt that BYU was as attractive a matchup as Oregon or Utah. In general, they seem to feel that the public, which had supported the team consistently for the first time in almost half a century, would be willing to stomach significant price increases after a disappointing season.
Financially, it's a sound move. A large percentage of fans do still come out, and 9,000 tickets at $60 bring in far more revenue than 11,000 tickets at $40. Instead of "what is a fair price to charge for a ticket?", the philosophy seems to be "what's the most that we can charge where we still make more money than we did before?" There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and I think any CU basketball fan would want the athletic department to make as much money as possible in order to pay for better coaches, facilities, etc. But the losers in this equation are the team and the fans. The team doesn't get to play in front of the types of crowds they deserve, and many fans feel like they can't afford to go to a game unless they want to sit in General Admission.
I say "feel like" they can't because the secondary market prices on StubHub this season are the lowest they've been in years. Almost every ticket is being sold for below face value. Fans could get into conference games against Stanford and Oregon State for as low as $6 when the cheapest ticket on CUBuffs.com was $20. For the game against Arizona, General Admission tickets are $48 on CUBuffs.com, and corner benches are $60. Both are markups of 100% or more over any other game this season. Why? Because they think they can get it. This is not having a "premium game" price bracket. This is picking one game out of the entire schedule and charging a premium for it because you feel like the public will be willing to pay for it.
In the past, the Arizona games would sell out before the season even started, and it would be difficult to get tickets for less than three figures on the secondary market. This year, with less than a week to go before the game, there are entire rows of seats available in section 19, and you can find tickets on StubHub for as low as $30. Demand for CU basketball tickets is the lowest it's been in years, and the prices are higher than they've ever been. It's an equation for making slightly more money at the price of a diminished game atmosphere.
While I don't think the prices this year are necessarily unfair, I do find them to be out of touch and unrealistic. The ceiling for CU's ticket prices is still pretty low compared to teams like UCLA or Arizona, but the "get in" price is the second highest in the conference. At schools like Oregon and Utah (who were much better teams last year than the Buffs were), you can pay $10 or $12 for a reserved seat with a chairback for most games. The seats that CU charges $60 for are $33 at Oregon. For Utah's game against Arizona, you can get in the door for $24 - exactly half the price of CU's Arizona game.
Now, for a school like Oregon who, despite their national ranking, doesn't draw nearly as well as the Buffs, the cheaper prices are understandable. But Utah? The Utes are the second biggest draw in the conference behind Arizona. They play in a big arena and they want it full. They remember having a 25 loss season just four years ago, when the Huntsman Center was never more than half filled. They're appreciative of the support they have now and they want the fans to stay with them. CU seems to have forgotten their long history of poor fan support in favor of the trends of the last five years.
Honestly, it amazes me that the crowds this year have only fallen off as much as they have. There still haven't been fewer than 7,000 tickets sold to any game. In the context of CU basketball history, that's incredible. While some fans fell off the bandwagon after last season, a much greater number stayed on. If the Buffs make the NCAA tournament, next year might approach what we saw in the past, although I doubt things will get back to 2012-13 levels unless the team wins a game in the tournament or gets back into the top 25.
Now I've been pretty hard on the athletic department here, but they aren't the only ones to blame. How many times this year have you seen every seat filled in sections 8, 9, 10, 20, 21 and 22 (the center sections). The answer to that question would be zero. The only games that have come anywhere close were Utah, Cal and Washington. Why do I ask this? Because those sections have been "sold out" for every game this season. It's simply been a matter of fans who already have tickets, most of them season ticket holders, not showing up for the games. Here's an example from the Washington game. Note how the higher sections are actually more filled in than the lower ones.
This has been a problem ever since the Buffs started selling large amounts of season tickets back in 2011. One part of being a major program is selling a lot of tickets, but that's not the whole equation. The people who have those tickets are in charge of actually showing up to the game, no matter who CU is playing.
Buying season tickets in prime locations and using them two or three times a year not only keeps other fans from using those seats; it creates a bad look on TV. I can guarantee you that major programs like Arizona and Kansas have far more season ticket holders than the Buffs do, but empty seats are almost impossible to find at any of their games. It's just a matter of dedication, and the CU fanbase isn't there yet.
On a similar note, the Buffs have seen consistently late-arriving crowds this year, even on weekends. While I realize that parking and traffic before games can be a hassle, this is once again an issue of people not being dedicated enough to put in the extra time to make sure they don't miss tip-off. This goes for both the students and the general public. These are some shots of the crowd at the Stanford game at the under-12 timeout in the first half, more than 20 minutes after the scheduled start of the game.
And this is how the crowd looked in the second half.
The difference is striking, and it's consistent with just about every other game this year. Even going back to last year, the games against Colorado State and UCLA took until about midway through the first half to "fill in". It's all about dedication. Denver Broncos games are attended by 76,000 people, and 95% or more of those people are in their seats by kickoff. In recent years, the Buffs have made amazing strides in terms of ticket sales, but the culture still needs work in terms of getting people to actually go to the games and having those people show up on time when they do. CU football has experienced the same issue with late arriving students and members of the general public in recent years, but that only happened after years of losing. The basketball program, on the other hand, is enjoying its greatest period of success in 50 years. One might expect to find a less relaxed attitude among the fanbase when it comes to attending games they've already purchased tickets for.
On a related note; CU sold over 8,000 student sports passes this year. This means that, with the exception of the Oregon State game, less than 15% of sports pass holders have attended any given basketball game at the same time. The basketball student section seats somewhere between 2000 and 2500, depending on who you listen to, and the number of sports passes sold aren't down significantly from recent years. If just 25% of the students who had sports passes went to games on a regular basis, there wouldn't be a problem. While we can blame the students for being apathetic about basketball, there are other root causes that need to be examined here.
After several years of strong support from the students, which was helped by giveaways and incentives for attending, the athletic department seemed to develop the opinion that they didn't have to do as much in order to get the students to come to the games. The product on the court would sell itself now, or so it seemed. The AD stopped providing transportation for students to the Pac-12 or NCAA tournaments after 2012. I was one of the top 50 attending students both of the last two seasons, and I was rewarded with free tickets to the Pac-12 tournament. I would have loved to have attended both years, but I couldn't afford to pay for my own transportation and lodging in Las Vegas. If I had been at CU in 2012 there is no doubt in my mind that I would have made the trip to Los Angeles.
While I realize that it cost a significant amount of money for CU to do this in the past, the result was a strengthened bond with the students. The students who attended the games in Los Angeles in 2012 made a lot of noise and helped to create a pro-CU atmosphere in Staples Center. It was a good look for the school and it made the students feel valued. It was also a far greater incentive to go to games. In the past I would hear students talk about wanting to go to games so they could be in the top 50 and go to the conference tournament. I haven't heard a discussion like that in more than two years.
The last two seasons, students were given C-Unit branded T-shirts just for showing up to one of the early season games. I can't speak for anyone else, but they made me feel like I was a part of something, and I've worn them proudly ever since. They were the expected uniform you wore to the game unless they were in the wash.
This year there was no C-Unit shirt. Instead, the marketing department has funneled its money into a new rewards program, which was a great idea on the surface that should have encouraged more students to come to games. The rollout of the program has been messy, with many students unaware that it even exists and others not receiving credit for games they attended. For months, the listed prize for attending eight or more men's basketball games was a solar cell phone charger, which was far less enticing than the football prize of a silver replica jersey.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I got word that the prize had been changed to a reversible "practice jersey", with the C-Unit logo on one side. They started handing them out at the Washington State game. At that point, very few students had attended enough games to be eligible. Many students who walked up and asked if they could have a jersey were told that they could not, because they hadn't attended enough games yet. Call me crazy, but that seems like a poor strategy if you're trying to build a good relationship with a student body that appears to need every bit of encouragement it can get.
In recent years, rally towels or pom-poms were also given out for certain games and, while I'm not arguing that anyone would go to a game just for one of those, they did add to the in-game atmosphere in the student section, and their absence this year is indicative of the lack of effort by the marketing department.
Another thing that students loved that made them feel involved were the once-ubiquitous "big heads", which doubled as free throw distractions and a way to see yourself on TV. There were perhaps 15 or 20 at any one time, and they were frequently updated based on the opponent CU was playing or the designated theme of the game. This year there have been new big heads made exactly once. Apparently the designated big head printer has been broken and getting them printed at a different location is not discussed as an option. Once again, it comes down to dedication.
★ ★ ★
Dateline: February 22, 2016
So, where does that leave us?
There are two home games remaining on the season for the Buffs, who own an 8-7 conference record after being swept on the road in Los Angeles. Next on the schedule is #12 Arizona. It's been three years and one week since the Buffs last defeated the Wildcats. It's been exactly two years since the first of two humiliating losses against them. At the time of this writing, the game is not yet sold out. If it still isn't by Wednesday, it would mark the first time since CU joined the Pac-12 that tickets for the Arizona game were left unsold.
The awful truth is that Coors hasn't been truly packed since the Buffs lost on senior day to Arizona two years ago. The game against CSU last year was close, but not quite there. In Tad Boyle's first three seasons, the Buffs drew more than 11,000 fans thirteen times. In the nearly three years since, it's happened just three times, and one of those (Arizona last year) was anything but a sellout in reality.
In the first five years of Boyle's tenure, 10,000 fans came to the arena at least four times each season. That has yet to happen this year. The games against Cal an Washington would have gotten there if the students had shown up, and the Oregon State game would have if the rest of the community had. Those are the only three games to date this year that have even drawn more than 9,000 fans, which happened almost every game in the three previous seasons.
Of course, this hasn't happened randomly or by chance. In addition to all the factors I've already looked at, consider this:
It's been 25 months since the Buffaloes last beat a ranked opponent. Since then, they have lost eleven consecutive games against the AP top 25. In Tad Boyle's first 3 1/2 years as coach, his team went 11-10 in those games. It's been over two years since they were last ranked in that poll themselves, and just as long since the last real Big Win for Colorado Buffaloes basketball.
Had the timing been different, this year's game against Oregon in Boulder could have been that game, but the Buffs caught the Ducks before they entered the national top 15 and in the middle of a Broncos playoff game. In some ways, it's almost like that game never happened. To find the last Big Win, one has to go back to January 5, 2014, when the 20th ranked Buffaloes scored 100 points and knocked off #10 and undefeated Oregon. It was Spencer Dinwiddie's last game at Coors Events Center.
It's impossible to separate Dinwiddie's injury from what happened after it. With him as the star, the Buffs were in the top 15 and seemed poised for the breakthrough that had eluded them the previous season. After his injury, the team went 25-28 over the next season and-a-half. It seemed like, after a brief moment in the sun, things in Boulder would return to the way they had been for decades (save for the occasional blip).
This year's team has surprised just about everyone, from the national media to the local fanbase, but they still haven't gotten back to the level they were at two years ago when the Mayor was running the point. Maybe that's what some fans are waiting for before they jump back on board. Everything is relative and 19-9 with an 8-7 conference record is not quite as impressive as it would have been five years ago.
Or maybe they're waiting for the Buffs to seize the moment and take down a ranked opponent. For all the winning they've done this season, the team has stumbled at every opportunity they've had to win a game that would convince the national media that Colorado Basketball is truly back. Despite having a virtually identical record to Utah and USC at the release of the February 15th AP poll, the Buffs failed to receive a single vote. Maybe the media is waiting for the Buffs, Oregon victory be damned, to beat a team with a number next to their name before they buy in.
There's also the fact that Arizona will be the first and only ranked opponent the Buffs will play at home all season. As much as Tad Boyle would like it to be different, fans do care who the team is playing, and quality of opponent has a measurable effect on the turnout. For a while the Wildcats were behind the Buffs in the conference standings, but they've been on a tear lately and will likely bring a top-10 ranking into Boulder. If a quality opponent is what fans have been waiting for, this is it.
The game on Wednesday night is an opportunity for the team and the fans to put Colorado back on the map of college basketball. It's the only home game on ESPN 1 or 2 this year, and the fact that they're playing a top program means that many people around the country will be watching a CU home game for the first time all season. They might remember the Kansas game, or the Arizona games before last season. Everything I'm talking about in this article means nothing to them. But a win in front of a sold out, blacked out crowd would prove to them that Colorado Basketball is still worth talking about.
For students, a win in this game with a full, raucous C-Unit would give them something to talk about to the incoming freshmen next year, and it would probably go a long way towards convincing them that basketball is not something to be missed in the future.
For the general public, it would remind them of the magic they felt against Kansas and Arizona in 2013, Colorado State in 2012, and Texas in 2011. It would be the kind of night they would remember for a long time.
Obviously, getting a full house at Coors doesn't guarantee anything. The team laid an egg two years ago against Arizona the last time Coors had that atmosphere before a game; with everyone already in their seats and buzzing well before the opening tap.
They have to do their part in order for this equation to work. A win would virtually guarantee them an NCAA tournament berth, and a loss would leave them with a lot of work left to do.
If it seems like there's a lot riding on this game, it's because there is. This is a Big Game. It matters. For the fifth time in six seasons, the Buffs are in late February with a chance to make the NCAA tournament.
If I had told you on January 12, 2010 that the win against Baylor wasn't just a good game, but the beginning of something incredible and lasting, would you have believed me? Would you have believed that it was even possible for CU to climb as far as it has since that day?
There is no precedent in the last half century for what has happened to this program under Tad Boyle. It's absolutely unbelievable that I can sit here and waste this much ink over the fact that Coors Events Center isn't sold out on a regular basis. That's how far we've come in six years. More fans will attend a CU basketball game this season than any season in history before 2012, and people are disappointed. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be disappointed. I'm saying that it's amazing that we've reached a point where we consider this level of interest in the team to be disappointing.
Who knows how long this era of success will last? I thought it might have been over after last year. I have no idea where this team will be in five, ten or even one year's time. I do know where they are now. They're playing a nationally televised game against the best team in the conference (who happens to be their biggest rival) that has the chance to secure them a place in the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five seasons.
Appreciate that. Savor that. Don't take it for granted.
★ ★ ★
As I was leaving Coors after the NIT quarterfinal game against Kent State in 2011, where the Buffs had just advanced to the final four at Madison Square Garden, I overheard a very old woman say "These are the times you tuck away in your heart for safe keeping." Over the last several years, the Buffs have given me perhaps a dozen of those times. They've also broken my heart on several occasions, but I wouldn't trade the memory of Askia Booker's shot going in for the erasure of the last two Arizona games from my mind. Never in a million years.
Wednesday night could be one of those magical times. It could also be a repeat of the last two years. At this point, no one has any idea. But the thing I always wonder about is how people can deprive themselves of the chance to experience something they're going to remember for the rest of their lives.
If you're a fan: is $30 too much to pay for that opportunity? If you're the athletic department: don't you want as many people as possible to come to the game? If you're a student: do you really have anything better to do on a Wednesday night? And if you're a player: aren't you sick and tired of everyone writing you off?
I can only answer one of those questions, and I definitely don't have anything better to do this Wednesday night. I got my shift at work switched weeks ago.
Maybe it's unrealistic for me to expect other people to do that just to see a basketball game, but then I think about people at Duke waiting in tents for days just so they can get tickets to a game. I'm not saying that I think CU basketball will ever get to that point, but it can definitely get a lot closer than it is now. There was probably a time (like, say, 2009) when people never dreamed things would ever be like they were in 2012 and 2013.
A lot can change in a few years. What has been built here is very fragile, and there's no guarantee that it will continue. I absolutely think that it can. CU basketball has the potential to reach far higher in terms of both on-court performance and fan support than it has in the last five years. But it's going to take everyone, from the athletic department, to the season ticket holders, to the students to - most importantly - the team in order for it to happen.
It's not going to be easy, but it's also far from impossible. It's just a matter of dedication.
What are you doing Wednesday night?
Ted Chalfen is a junior at CU and has owned a C-Unit shirt since he was 10 years old. Sometimes he pretends to be an impartial basketball writer.