Two of college basketball’s most storied programs are helpless with fan bases that are not up to par with their blueblood status.
This assertion is coming not from an outsider’s point of view. Those who are part of the programs at UCLA and North Carolina acknowledge the shortcomings of playing in front of many empty seats (at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion) or indifferent fans (at North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center).
“It’s an L.A. thing in a general sense,” UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero reasoned in a recent Los Angeles Times article about the Bruins’ predicament. “In L.A., it’s known to most that you need to be relevant. If you’re relevant, people will show up.”
The Bruins suffered through a losing season last year under coach Steve Alford and ranked No. 60 nationally in attendance, averaging 8,073 fans in 17 games at the 13,800-seat Pauley Pavilion. Ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 poll this season through the first 13 games, and scoring at a fun-to-watch high rate of 95.8 points a game, UCLA is averaging only slightly more fans a game at 8,645 in eight home games. An unbeaten program with 11 national titles averaging only 62.6 percent to capacity in the house that John Wooden built?
North Carolina’s problem has not always been attendance, although consistent sellouts do not occur at the 21,750-seat Dean Smith Center. The average crowd through six home games this season is only 15,028, down from 18,326 last season, which ranked fourth nationally.
The Tar Heels are coming off an appearance in the national title game. They own five national championships. This is a program with eight Hall of Famers, including coach Roy Williams, Dean Smith, Bob McAdoo, Michael Jordan and James Worthy. Despite all of that, the Smith Center has been filled to only 69 percent capacity this season.
Williams’ beef with the Smith Center crowd is more about the apathy that is shown by those who attend the games. The “Wine and Cheese Crowd” at the Smith Center, as it is called, consists of older-generation wealthy donors sitting courtside with the student section further up in the stands.
The atmosphere does not compare to what rival Duke offers at the quaint 9,314-seat Cameron Indoor Stadium with students occupying one complete side of the court and the area behind both baskets.
After North Carolina’s loss at Indiana on Nov. 30, Williams lamented – as he has done several times about the Smith Center atmosphere – that he wished his team had similar vociferous support the Hoosiers enjoyed from fans at Assembly Hall.
“Gosh, I’d like to play in front of a crowd like that in the Smith Center every night other than the frickin’ Duke game,” Williams said.
“It was a great college basketball atmosphere, and one team really played right from the get-go, the second one did not and that was us,” Williams added. “We were not ready for the intensity, the enthusiasm, anything that you want to talk about in the first half. … Congratulations to them, their fans, their students. It was a big-time crowd.”
What North Carolina’s administration faces with such remarks made by Williams is shared by other programs, including Wisconsin. Do you sacrifice thousands of dollars from donors for students occupying seats closer to the floor? Does funding mean more than an intense atmosphere for visitors?
UCLA’s situation is more of where the Bruins are located, in the bustling Los Angeles area in which the battle for the entertainment dollar is a constant struggle. It appears Guerrero and UCLA’s administration are fighting a battle very difficult to win.
Two years ago when the Bruins advanced to the Sweet Sixteen under Alford, UCLA drew a record-low average of 7,711 fans a game at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins have not averaged more than 10,000 fans a game since 2007-08 when the Russell Westbrook-Kevin Love UCLA team drew an average of 10,580.
Encouraging for UCLA is the 10,695 who showed up on a rainy night for the Western Michigan game on Dec. 21. Some star power was there as well with Vince Vaughn and Jessica Alba in attendance. The Bruins must become a fad again like during the days of Wooden, when the program marketed itself.
Guerrero maintains his approach that winning is the best marketing tool – not an all-out advertising blitz or promotional ticket packages – to fix the attendance issue.
“When you’re winning and when you’re doing well, the fans will come,” Guerrero said in a Los Angeles Daily News article last March that dealt with fan unrest about Alford. “And when you’re not, you will have a core group of unconditional fans that will support you and will come to those games whether you win or lose, but you’ll lose a segment of that fan base that will opt to go somewhere else or spend their money someplace else.”
Similar to Guerrero, Williams must do the same at North Carolina with the “Wine and Cheese Crowd.”
North Carolina’s meager attendance figures in football means – in budget terms – change won’t be coming soon at the Smith Center by replacing donor dollars with vociferous students near the court. The Tar Heels’ 63,000-seat Kenan Memorial Stadium for football drew an average of only 49,643 fans in 2015. That number improved slightly to 50,250 this season.
The bottom line trumps everything.
Attendance in college football has declined over the last six years. College basketball attendance dipped slightly last season in Division I with almost 100,000 fewer fans attending games than in 2014-15. The basketball programs at UCLA and North Carolina can’t be saved from that trend despite their blueblood status.
Javier Morales has worked as a sports journalist for more than 25 years. He reported for The Arizona Daily Star for 13 years. He was the Star’s beat reporter for the Arizona men’s basketball program when the Wildcats won the national title in 1996-97. A 2010 Arizona Press Club award winner, Morales operates the blog site AllSportsTucson.com.