If Archie Builds it, Will They Come?

As I left my media seat after last week’s Indiana victory over Illinois and started to make my way down to the press room I was struck by something I heard legendary IU public address announcer Chuck Crabb say.  He simply said that the game was a sellout.  Nothing controversial there right?  This was a Big Ten game, and this is Indiana.  Of course it was a sellout.

The reason Crabb’s statement caught my attention on this night was because for the last 2 hours the view to my left was the picture above.  Doesn’t exactly look like a sellout, does it?  Not even close really.  Now to be sure, that picture was taken a minute before tip-off and a few more students showed up.  But not much.  And Crabb was telling the truth — Indiana did sell every seat.  But this isn’t about selling tickets.  This is about no shows, and on this night against the Illini, there were no shows aplenty.

So it left me wondering — is this a new phenomenon that we can pin on those dreaded millennials or whatever misguided one size fits all label we are putting on today’s college students, part of a larger trend in society as a whole, or something that has been going on for decades?  The answer is something along the lines of yes, yes, and yes.  We don’t claim to have a definitive answer here, in part because it isn’t black and white.  Truth be told there are several moving parts conspiring to leave certain sections of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall as barren as the place in Mackey Arena where the banners would go.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

You don’t have to go back very far to find a time when things were worse than they are now.  Consider this snippet from a 2009 New York Times article:

CHEAP TICKETS With attendance dropping at Indiana games, Athletic Director Fred Glass announced that balcony tickets would cost $5 the rest of the season.  Indiana’s average attendance has dropped to fewer than 12,500, a sign of the tough economic times and the worst season in decades for the men’s team. The Hoosiers have lost eight straight, their longest losing streak since 1964, and their 0-5 start in the Big Ten is the worst since 1944.  At recent games, the lower bowl of Assembly Hall has had empty seats and some in the balcony have also been empty. Glass said he hoped the new pricing policy would help fill some of those seats.

OK, we know, we know.  “But that was 2009.  The program was in disarray after the Kelvin Sampson fallout.”

Sure, then how about this:

Credit: kentsterling.com

This was in December 2015 just before the tip-off against IPFW.  “Ah, but sure, it was IPFW, and IU was struggling at that time”.  We could do this all day.  I could give you examples of times when fans didn’t show up and you could give me the excuses, I mean the reasons, why.  But this is Indiana, and we are supposed to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the game.

Surely enlightended Indiana basketball fans saw the December 2015 transformation that was about to happen with that team, right?  You remember, the stunning comeback against Notre Dame that followed only days after that IPFW game, and then the 15-3 run through the Big Ten for the outright title?  The fans certainly showed up then.

“BUT IT WASN’T LIKE THAT WHEN BOBBY WAS HERE”

There is no doubt that Indiana basketball put a consistently better product on the floor during most of Bob Knight’s reign as head coach than what they have done since.  There is also no doubt that as time passes, we tend to remember those times through crimson colored lenses.  It’s practically asking for a fight to tell someone that Bob Knight’s late IU teams (i.e. 1995-2000) turned the ball over as much as Tom Crean’s.  But it’s true.

So for this we had to bring in the big guns, and frankly someone that is old enough to remember Knight’s prime, and beyond, but young enough to do it with clarity.  We asked Bill Murphy, author of Branch:  The Branch McCracken Story and IU basketball historian if he could remember a time during the the Knight era where the Hoosiers struggled to fill up Assembly Hall.

Without hesitation or any prompting on my part, Murphy lept to the same season that I had wondered about but wasn’t old enough to remember on my own.  Many people may not realize this, but the legendary undefeated 1976 season was followed up by a bit of a stinker by IU standards.  The 1976-77 Hoosiers finished the year 14-13 (later adjusted to 16-11 after Minnesota was forced to forfeit wins).  Only 8 months removed from perfection, IU lost their second game of that season to Toledo, and on it went.

According to Murphy, despite that 1976-77 team coming off the perfect year and still having major star power like future NBA players Kent Benson, Mike Woodson, Wayne Radford and Butch Carter — the Hoosiers still struggled to fill up the Hall.  Murphy indicated that he (and presumably everyone else) was offered the chance to purchase additional tickets going into the 1977-78 season.  This likely indicated a drop-off in renewals from existing season ticket holders.

You’ll have to strain your eyes a bit to see it, but a careful examination of this photo from a December 20, 1976 game against Utah State at the Indiana Classic clearly shows plenty of empty seats both in the corner of the lower section as well as the balcony.  The team was struggling, the students were gone, it was a nameless opponent, and it was right before Christmas. It was just the kind of game IU would struggle to have people attend today.  Except that here it was only months removed from perfection.

Credit: IU Archives

Murphy also assured us that there were plenty of similar instances during the Branch McCracken years, including a pretty rough 1964 season where attendance was about 75% of capacity.  Even then, the one constant was always winning, or a lack thereof.  Yes, it appears that, just like every other sports team, to a certain extent we have always had a large component of our own fan base that are front runners, or fair weather fans, if you will.

OTHER REASONS FOR THE EMPTY SEATS

First, let’s get one thing out of the way here.  This is not just about the student section.  Sure, as you can see in the main photo, their absence can leave a striking void, but upon closer examination of the Illinois game there were clearly hundreds, probably thousands of empty alumni/donor seats as can be seen in this photo.

So let’s list out the reasons why students and “old people” alike are not showing up aside from not winning, which as we showed you in 1976, can be fleeting as it relates to attendance.  In no particular order, here are the primary reasons that we would hypothesize that people buy tickets but do not ultimately show up for games:

  • There is a larger national trend of people not attending live sporting events.  This is way too complex to get into here, and has been covered ad nauseam elsewhere, including this piece by the Washington Post last week.
  • That is one really big student section.  It can be a thing to behold when everything is just right, like say when #1 Duke is in town.  But getting 7,800 students (or 45% of capacity) to consistently and reliably show up en masse can be problematic when everything isn’t going well.  So if you really want the student section to be that big, then you are going to have to take the good with the bad.  And having all of those seats together only magnifies the problems when they exist.
  • There are a whole lot of bad seats in Assembly Hall.  Most people know that if you are sitting north of row 30 you are risking nose bleeds and severe eye strain.  The balcony?  Forget about it.  I mean seriously, what lengths are you going to go to see a mediocre IU team play Tennessee Tech on a cold, dark, December night right before Christmas if your view looks something like this:
Rumor has it that there is a game down there.
  • Baby it’s cold outside.  Ok, so it’s always been cold during basketball season, but the number of viable alternatives hasn’t always been this large.  How many people are going to trudge through the conditions to get that balcony view above when they could stay home and watch the game on their 64-inch widescreen while having a drink or two with friends or family?  Oh, yeah, that’s right, there is no alcohol at Assembly Hall.  We’ll leave that one alone for now.
  • Mississippi Valley Who?  Whatever his motivations might have been, Tom Crean didn’t win over many hearts or minds with his non-conference scheduling philosophy which routinely involved the bottom third of the programs across the country.  Guess what?  People don’t really want to see those teams.  Shocking, right?
  • Ticket Brokers.  Whether actual brokers or alums who get their seats to try to make a profit, there is a mysteriously large amount of tickets available for every game in the after market.  Those tickets don’t sell well on Valentine’s Day / Ash Wednesday when the team is 15-12.

CAN YOU KEEP IT DOWN PLEASE?

We really didn’t know where else to put this but it was something we noticed at the Illinois game in the student section and it seemed relevant for this piece.  Something that you wouldn’t ever notice if the Hall was filled to capacity.  You can see some of it if you look closely at the main picture at the top, but rest assured it became more prominent as the game wore on.

What I’m talking about here is students that are choosing to attend games but stay back in the seats further away from the more vocal mob that stands near the court.  Some were back as high as the Section K media seats which is basically the top of the lower section.

We asked a few of these folks during the game to better understand why they weren’t trying to get closer to the action.  What we heard was along the lines of “so they didn’t have to stand the whole time, and so they could talk to their friends easier”.  It seems that for them, the game was more of a social event rather than a basketball game.

We don’t point this out to shame them.  Quite the contrary.  At least they made the effort rather than just not showing up at all.  But it’s just one more variable in a shifting social dynamic that makes something that may seem quite simple on the surface quite complex when you start peeling back the layers.

YOU WANT ANSWERS?

Even winning is no panacea, but the students will largely come back if this program is consistently producing a top 20 team.  In some ways, this generation of students wants to be at a must-see event more than prior generations.  How else are you going to Insta-Snap-Face-Tweet it out to your friends unless you are there?

But aside from winning, there have to be other proactive efforts to improve upon something that clearly doesn’t put the program in the best light.  Here are a few thoughts that occurred to us.  We don’t claim to have all of the answers and would encourage you — students, alums and other fans alike — to add yours in the comments below:

  • Rewards.  College kids love to be rewarded.  No, I didn’t say participation trophies.  Shame on you.  But hey, if a student attends every game for which a ticket was allotted to him or her then maybe put them in the court-side bleachers for the final home game during their senior year?
  • More Rewards!  This one is Bill Murphy’s idea, and we liked it.  Start keeping track of who is and isn’t going to games and come up with a way to incent attendance with scholarship money.
  • I’ll take that!  IU could come up with a pooling system that would allow students to electronically deposit tickets they aren’t able to use back into a pool so other students could pick them up for free rather than going unused.  This could be used in tandem with the first two points.
  • Archie Miller already has a few things underway which we think will help turn the tide.  One, he has said repeatedly that he wants to toughen up the non-conference schedule, and the Big Ten will do some of that for him with 2 more conference games.  He also is emphasizing recruiting the state of Indiana with good early results.  The majority of the student body is still from Indiana, and they’ve watched the likes of Yogi Ferrell and Cody Zeller grow up.  Appealing to our tribal instincts with in-state talent, which by the way, is pretty freaking awesome at the high school level, cannot hurt.

THAT’S A WRAP

This has obviously been a hot topic not only in recent weeks but also recent years.  While it may take a backseat on Friday night as Tim Priller and some other guys have their senior nights, it will continue to surface as the program transitions.  We hope this helped to at least add some historical context and shape the conversation going forward.  The one thing we know for sure is that if Archie gets this train rolling, we won’t be worrying about how to fill the Hall anymore.  Instead we’ll be worrying about how we can find a ticket to get in.

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