Throughout CU's non-conference schedule this season, much has been made of the attendance, or lack thereof, by the team's fans. The dip from recent seasons has been obvious, even to those who don't follow the numbers, and the amount of empty seats in Coors Events Center has drawn the attention and ire of Buffs fans, the local media, and head coach Tad Boyle himself.
While I've been disappointed with the atmosphere and attendance at times this season, I'm here to tell you all not to draw too many conclusions about the state of the fanbase - at least not yet. There are several factors that explain this drop-off, though they don't necessarily excuse it.
1. The performance of last year's team and its impact on season ticket sales
The 2014-15 Buffs were a disaster, and they weren't a fun team to watch. On top of that, they had several bad home losses, including the two worst defeats of the Tad Boyle era. This was not a very effective sales pitch to season ticket holders to renew their seats, especially not when the prices for season tickets were actually increased over last season. This rollover effect can be seen with almost any professional or collegiate sports team. Season ticket sales, which have a huge impact on paid attendance, have way more to do with the previous season's team than the current one. My favorite case study here is the Boston Red Sox, who averaged several thousand fans per game fewer in their 2013 World Series championship season than they did in their last place finishes the year before or after.
The Buffs were a very bad team last year, but their paid attendance remained steady from the year before because of all the season tickets they had sold before the season. This year was the first time in four seasons that the Buffs failed to sell out their season ticket allotment, and that has been the main reason for the drop in paid attendance. The "floor" for the last two seasons of non-conference play was about 8,000 fans per game. This year, it's about 7,000. I've been to games against Lipscomb last year, and Arkansas State two years ago where there were easily as few actual people in attendance as there were against Portland or Air Force this year, but the paid numbers were higher because of the higher amount of season tickets sold.
Here's a photo from the Drexel game last year (paid attendance 10,058).
And here's one from the Portland game this year (paid attendance 7,783)
I don't see a huge difference there. While I'm not trying to say that there hasn't been a dip in the actual number of people coming to games on average this year, I am trying to say that not attending non-conference games has been a time-honored tradition for season ticket holders for a while now. It just so happens that there are fewer of them this year.
2. The unattractive non-conference schedule
In recent years, CU has had some very attractive non-conference home matchups, with guaranteed sellouts against Kansas in 2013 and CSU in 2012 and 2014. Power conference teams like Georgia and Auburn also visited the Coors Events Center and drew large crowds. This year's sexiest matchup was BYU, a perennial tournament team, but not the kind of draw that those other teams provided. The paid attendance against BYU was 8,913, which was the highest of this non-conference season, but still over 2000 short of a sellout. It was also the only time we saw a reasonably sized student section which, while it doesn't have an impact on the actual paid attendance, makes a big difference in the atmosphere in the arena.
The schedule this year was brutal for students, with the first four games taking place over Thanksgiving break and the final two taking place over winter break. The only two games in-between were against Division II Fort Lewis and the aforementioned BYU matchup, which took place on the eve of finals. The BYU game gave me hope that attendance during conference play might be stronger than last year, but if it isn't the C-Unit might have a problem on its hands. After impressive student crowds early in the 2014-15 season against Drexel, Auburn and CSU, student attendance fizzled along with the team's performance. The best student section of conference play, against Arizona, was only about 90% full. Hopefully this year the C-Unit is able to return to what it was a few years ago and be packed almost every night.
3. Tickets are more expensive
In the recent past, CU basketball was one of the best bargains in town. Tickets were cheap and the team was good. Last year's team was definitely not good, and tickets are no longer cheap. It's not difficult to see why many are hesitant to spend $30 for a bleacher seat in the 30th row to see the Buffs take on non-conference competition. In the past, distribution of fans inside the arena was relatively equal, and it was not uncommon to see an inverse of a traditional distribution, with the upper rows more full than the courtside seats at many non-conference games due to lazy season ticket holders. This can be clearly seen here, in this blurry photo I took at the CU/Air Force game in 2012.
Now this photo is from the Nicholls game three weeks ago, and it isn't pretty.
Three years later, the amount of people in the best seats hasn't changed much, but the emptiest areas of the arena are now the upper corners, which used to be packed. CU is simply charging too much for these seats (be it $60 for a chairback or $30 for a bench) and I don't expect to see them priced at the same level as the midcourt seats next year.
Now, this whole article to this point has been making excuses for CU's attendance, but that assumes that the attendance at non-conference games this year has been "bad" and that it needs to be apologized for. This is where context comes into play. In the context of the last four years, attendance for this year's non-conference schedule was bad. In the context of the whole history of CU basketball before that, it's terrific.
Let's look at the last four years of CU basketball non-conference attendance, shall we?
2015-16: 62,966 (7,871)
2014-15: 66,468 (9,495)
2013-14: 84,133 (9,348)
2012-13: 61,513 (10,252)
So we can see that this season is off significantly (by over 1500 per game) from last year, and that it's off 2400 per game from three years ago. This is not the trend we want to see. With that said, I want to take a look at a graph of CU's non-conference average attendance from the last 15 years (with conference attendance included for reference).
As you can see, despite lagging behind recent years, this year is miles ahead of anything before 2012-13, and it's ahead of all but two seasons of conference attendance in the pre-Boyle era. Before Tad Boyle (and including his first year on the job) most Buffs fans did not even start thinking about basketball until January. Period. Since he got to town (and especially since the 2012 NCAA tournament berth) CU basketball has turned into a season-long draw for fans, with discrepancies between the conference and non-conference averages in the hundreds the last three seasons instead of the thousands. While the crowds during non-conference have absolutely been larger, a lot of this increase is due to the massive amounts of season tickets the team has sold the last few seasons, which has given them a paid attendance "floor" that they do not go under. In the past, a good team like the 2005-06 squad would draw large crowds for their conference schedule after playing to as little as 1500 people in the non-conference schedule. This is because people would "buy-in" after realizing the team was good and start going to games. In the Boyle era, people buy-in by the thousands before the season even starts.
If the team continues to win, we might be able to expect a larger discrepancy in the conference/non-conference numbers this year. There is a possibility, however, that attendance will continue to disappoint for the rest of the season. When the team was 7-1 and coming off a huge road win against CSU, Tad Boyle called for a sellout of the BYU game. While I wasn't sure it would get all the way there, I was expecting the fans to wake up and pack Coors for a team that had won seven in a row and was clearly much better than everyone had expected. It didn't happen. There were more than 2,000 unsold tickets for that game, and the reality hit me that CU fans might just be spoiled. "Good" doesn't excite them anymore.
In Boyle's first year, two wins against ranked opponents to open the conference season ensured sellouts in five of the remaining seven conference games. Buff fans were desperate to cheer for something, and the fact that the basketball team was finally good was thrilling. After the 2012 Pac-12 and NCAA tournament runs, the hype for the basketball team reached a fever pitch. What followed were two first round exits in the tournament, followed by a disastrous season that wasn't even good enough to get the Buffs into the NIT. What CU fans have been waiting for ever since 2012 is for the team to take that next step. They were tantalizingly close in 2013-14 when they reached #15 in the country, but we all know what happened after that.
Perhaps those fans who didn't renew their season tickets this year are still waiting for a signature win, which is the one thing distinctly lacking from CU's resume this season. Maybe a win against SMU would have ensured a sellout against Utah instead of a crowd that will probably be similar to the one we saw against BYU (check the seat map online if you don't believe me). Either way, don't be shocked if the numbers for the conference schedule this year aren't what you expect them to be. I'm hopeful that we'll see a large increase over the non-conference numbers, but I can't be sure of that. Maybe we'll have to wait until next year to really see the benefits of what the Buffs are doing this year; in the same way that we really only saw the fallout from last year at the start of this season.
My final thoughts on this subject (for now) are that numbers aren't everything. I'm going to show you two pictures, and I want you to guess which one had a higher paid attendance.
You guessed it - it's the first one. No? You didn't? Well this is where paid attendance can be deceiving. The first picture is the 2012-13 season opener against Wofford, and the paid attendance was 10,611. I think we can all agree that there are more than 453 empty seats on that side of the arena alone. I'd guess there were anywhere between 7,500 and 8,000 people actually there that night (though there was a great student section that you can't see in that picture).
The second picture is taken from the last home game of the 2011 NIT against Kent State. Paid attendance: 9,065. The reason it's so low is because NIT games aren't covered in season ticket packages, which meant everyone had to buy a ticket to that individual game. Student season tickets were not automatically included either. That was one of the most memorable environments I've ever been a part of at Coors. The Wofford game? Not so much.
My point here is that 9,000 actual warm bodies is more than enough to raise the roof. If the fans who are there are loud and engaged, the people who aren't there won't be missed as much. I would much rather have 9,000 tickets sold with almost that many people actually at the game than the "sellout" against Arizona last year where about 3,500 people decided not to show up (not that they missed anything). If the team makes it back to the NCAA tournament this year, the odds are good that next year's season ticket allotment will sell out and I can stop talking about this and go back to complaining about how bad the first few rows look on TV.
Until then, I'll see you at the game.
If you want an Excel version of the data I used in the graph, go here: