This morning I read this article in the NY Times about how the student section at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is almost never full these days. The school has been selling the excess capacity to non-students, so the games are still sold out. But the article (which is well worth your time) notes that they are averaging about 700 undergrads in attendance per game, whereas the section has a capacity of 1200.
This got me thinking about Syracuse (pretty much everything does) and the vagaries of Carrier Dome attendance for basketball. For what it’s worth, SU has recently dealt with similar problems to those now facing Duke’s program. I found this Daily Orange article from 2007 that describes how SU had started to sell tickets in the “overflow” student section, an area that was almost always empty, and how it caused problems when a larger-than-usual student contingent showed up for that year’s UConn game. The SU student section on the first level has a capacity of about 2,000; any crowd beyond that size used to be able to sit in the upper deck above that section. But that year at least, they were never getting enough students, even for big matchups, to require use of that overflow area. So they sold the tickets. As a result, when they did draw well over 2,000 students for UConn, those at the end of the line got shunted up into the far corners of the Dome for that game. (I’d be interested to know if that policy has been tweaked in the several years since ‘07.)
Low student attendance is a strange position for any program to be in, but particularly ones like Duke and SU who are used to an uncommonly high level of demand for their tickets (to be sure, the circumstances and traditions at each program are quite different from each other — I am not equating the Dome experience with camping outside Cameron). SU fans who grew up in Syracuse in the 80s and 90s remember our fair city as the undisputed kings of college basketball attendance. From 1985 to 1995, Syracuse had the highest attendance in the land. But since ‘95, we have ceded the crown to Kentucky, save for the 2004-05 season when we were able to briefly grab the title again. The difference has not been any particular rise in UK’s numbers — they’ve steadily averaged 22K-23K ever since Rupp Arena opened in 1976 — but a steep decline in SU’s numbers.
First, a taste of the good times: In the 1989-90 season Syracuse averaged — AVERAGED! — 29,918 fans per game. This was Derrick Coleman’s (and Stevie Thompson’s) senior year, and Billy Owens’ sophomore campaign, when they started the year as the preseason #1 ranked team. But it wasn’t just that one “magical” season. In the two years leading up to that one, SU averaged over 28K per game, and in the following year, they topped 29K again. Now I will not naively claim that these 29,000 people were all showing up for every game. These figures, as they always have been, are from ticket sales instead of turnstile counts. But even if, say, 25% of the tickets went unused, that’s still 22,000 people showing up.
The sudden drop in ticket sales began with the 1991-92 season. SU averaged “only” 27K that year, which was the year after they lost to Richmond. The following season the attendance dropped to 25K per game. This was the season during which SU was banned from the postseason. Attendance continued to sink slowly after that, bottoming out in the 2001-02 season at around 18K per game. (The official average for that year is 17,023. However, that includes two NIT games held at the Dome which each drew under 6,000 fans.) That dismal season was followed — thank the gods — by the greatest season in SU history. People tend to forget how lackluster the program had been for a couple of years before Carmelo, Gerry, and Matt Gorman(!) showed up. That team’s magical year rejuvenated everything — the program, the coach, the fan base, the reputation. The whole burrito. Yet another reason to be thankful for Mr. Anthony & Co. Ever since that year, SU’s attendance has held relatively steady around 21K-22K. (There was another official drop in ‘07-’08, but again it was partly due to the NIT. This was not the “screw you NCAAs” NIT where nearly 27K turned out for the games, it was Donte Greene’s year. Those NIT games drew 10K and 14K respectively.)
Just to put this in a bit more perspective, here are some numbers from those record-setting seasons. I happen to have an old game program from 1992 and it lists the game-by-game attendance for every SU home game since the Dome opened. This information is not included in the online media guide, although that was my source for the yearly averages quoted above. (Side note: if you haven’t perused the SU basketball media guide, do yourself a favor and take a peek when you have a little time to kill. It’s chock full of stats and history and will remind you of the existence of guys like James Thues.) That 1989-90 season, SU drew at least 30,000 for 6 of their 8 Big East games, and over 29,000 for the other two. For comparison, last year’s Providence game barely broke the 20K attendance figure. But it’s the nonconference attendance that is perhaps even more remarkable. For example, on December 28, 1989, over 28,000 tickets were sold as SU faced off against… Lafayette. That’s December 28. No students around. No “marquee” opponent. And 28,000 tickets were sold. Amazing to think about today, but it was routine back then. (Games that year against Towson State and Virginia Commonwealth also broke the 28,000 ticket mark.)
So many factors go into the attendance decline, but topping them all has got to be TV (in general, and ESPN in particular). SU’s attendance peaked in 1989. Well, Big Monday started on ESPN in 1987, and their coverage has only expanded since then. Before that, you’d get a game here and a game there on one of the Big 3 networks. Now, 25 years later, ESPN broadcasts (or produces for local cable) every single SU game, except the one or two on CBS. In High Definition. On your giant plasma TV, where you can pause and rewind.
Another factor is that these massive SU crowds were built largely on the sheer numbers of season ticket holders. I don’t know the figures but you have to assume that there was not all that much of a walk-up crowd for that Lafayette game. For a bit of perspective, consider that in 1986-87, when SU averaged over 25,000 per game for the regular season, they drew only 15,681 for their first-round NCAA Tournament game against Georgia Southern, and 19,990 for their 2nd-round game against Western Kentucky. Both were at the Dome, but not included in a season ticket plan. Anyway, whatever the actual numbers, it’s clear that season ticket sales have declined over the years. The reasons for that are unfathomably complex, and would have to include, at a minimum, a full reckoning of the economics and demographics of Central New York. But you get the picture.
The composition of the Big East surely has had an effect as well. Our rivalries with the likes of St. John’s and Providence are just not as hot as they were in the ’80s and ’90s. The relative decline of those programs on the national stage, along with the demise of anything even remotely resembling home-and-home scheduling, has taken a lot of the starch out of those matchups. They just don’t excite the average fan the way they used to. Unfortunately, the move to the ACC is only going to make this worse. Sure, you can replace traditional big draws UConn and Villanova with Duke and UNC (while hopefully keeping Georgetown on the schedule) but there is going to be precious little interest when, say, the Clemson Tigers come calling. It’ll be like that for a few years, until some new rivalries get to develop (Maryland I’m looking at you).
It’s clear that, just like the Dome Ranger and “Free Fries”, the days of routinely drawing 30,000 to the Dome are long gone. And unless something shifts in the college basketball landscape, I think SU is basically destined to remain #2 in attendance for a while. I just hope we don’t get passed by Louisville, and their ridiculously named Yum! Center. I can’t stand those guys.