CLEMSON — Clemson fans went wild as they witnessed their basketball team pull off the most improbable of comebacks, but cheers were drowned out by music blaring inside Littlejohn Coliseum as the Tigers shocked No. 18-ranked Arkansas in overtime back on Dec. 7.
The roar of a home crowd isn’t quite as raucous when nearly half of the seats are empty.
Official attendance for Clemson’s only victory against a ranked opponent this season was 6,764, but that number was for tickets sold.
Reporters on press rows across the country regularly chuckle at attendance announcements as they look out at thousands of unoccupied seats.
This is not a Clemson problem, to be sure. It’s not a South Carolina problem, or an ACC problem, or even a Citadel problem.
“Right now, college basketball is really good in so many different areas,” said Jay Bilas, ESPN college basketball analyst and the sport’s premier spokesman. “But it’s not as good as it should be, and we’re seeing the fans vote with their feet.”
It’s a national epidemic: the popularity of college basketball as a whole is down, indicated by the decreasing number of people showing up for games.
Big-name opponents — Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse — typically draw big crowds to Littlejohn Coliseum, but attendance otherwise dwindles. Clemson averaged more than 8,000 fans from 2007-08 to 2010-11, but the Tigers’ home attendance this season was 7,635 announced fans per game, 10th in the ACC.
The Tigers finished with their fifth-lowest average crowd in two decades, despite the momentum from last year’s 23-win squad — including a couple of sold-out NIT victories where 10,000 strong roared.
In the ACC, North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have seen their average attendance fall by the thousands over the course of the past decade.
South Carolina is bucking the trend this season, averaging 11,520 per home game — up 34 percent from two years ago, head coach Frank Martin’s first season in Columbia. But other SEC members — including LSU, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M — have gone the opposite direction.
As far as in-state mid-major teams, Winthrop used to welcome nearly 2,500 fans a game; this year, it was less than half that. College of Charleston has maintained a respectable following, though this year’s 2,734 average was more than 10 percent lower than 10 years ago (when the Cougars drew 3,178 per game) despite the team’s move to a new arena seven years ago.
The average attendance for all NCAA Division I teams peaked at 5,382 fans per home game in 1993 and 1995. That number dipped more than 500 fans per game in 2013-14.
Bilas has one way to revitalize college basketball: hurry it up.
“Men’s college basketball is the slowest (basketball) game in the world. No other game in the world has a 35-second shot clock,” said Bilas, irked by seeing scoring averages dip to their lowest totals since the 1950s.
“It’s absurd. Basketball is a game of quick decisions, and we’re taking our guys totally out of that.”
The cupcake non-conference schedules prominent in the season’s early months also make Bilas shake his head.
“Fans expect to be entertained. There are too many lesser games that are being played, especially in lesser conferences,” Bilas said. “When you’re playing Directional State U, the crowd’s not coming, and that’s clear across the board.”
Other nuances hurting attendance: no beer sales at the vast majority of college events, faulty WiFi setups that disconnect fans from the rest of the world during games, and the steep decline of star players in college basketball.
Unlike college football, where the best and most famous players usually play three years before going pro, the one-and-done system in college basketball has made it difficult for fans to even remember where the NBA’s young superstars went to college.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell, who has visited countless high school gyms on the recruiting trails, says the crowds at those games are not what they used to be. He looks at the half-empty student sections and recalls when kids rallied around packing the gym on game night.
“A lot of high school kids work. Everybody has a car now. Everybody has a phone,” Brownell said. “There’s a lot of kids out there that don’t seem to be wanting as much as we sometimes think they do.”
The metaphor certainly extends to college competition.
“You didn’t just want to sit in your dorm room; you came across campus and watched games,” Brownell said. “Social media probably plays into it. More things for kids to do this way, on your phone and computers. That wasn’t as big a deal 10-15 years ago.”
The rise of college football prominence, particularly in the South, has also trampled preseason momentum for the casual college basketball fan, in Brownell’s view.
“I’m from the Midwest, and it’s just different; there are more people thinking basketball in October and November than really get into it here,” Brownell said.
Finally, as the NCAA’s data shows, each year brings an unprecedented number of actual games, and as television has worked to broadcast more and more of those events, fans with their HD TVs and cheap refreshments in a climate-controlled living room find themselves choosing the alternative.
“Obviously, it’s amazing how many games you can watch at night now. If they don’t like the way you’re playing, there’s six other games they can pick,” Brownell said. “I just think all those factors play into it.”
Even to players in the mid-major programs accustomed to gyms holding a few thousand folks, fan support is significant.
“We consider them the ‘Sixth Man’ being into the game as much as they are. It’s such an extra benefit when they are into the game,” Citadel sophomore guard Warren Sledge said. “Honestly, if we had that kind of crowd at every home game, I think we’d have double-digit wins here.”
Clemson went 11-6 at home this regular season, and after the team’s overtime victory against Georgia Tech, leading scorer Jaron Blossomgame tweeted his displeasure over the lack of student support for a Saturday noon tipoff.
Earl Grant’s first year as head coach at College of Charleston didn’t gone smoothly on the floor (8-23), and attendance dipped by several hundred per game.
“Would we love to have the student section full every game? Of course, but there’s a lot to do on campus, so you don’t know what’s going on in their lives,” Cougars guard Anthony Stitt said. “I think we’ve had good crowds in our student section most of the year. They get into it and it changes the whole vibe of the game.”
Particularly at a place like College of Charleston, where there is no football team, the success of the basketball team — not just in the win-loss column, but attendance figures — is everything.
“Basketball is our flagship sport, it’s our priority sport and we need people to be interested and come to the games. That’s on us,” athletic director Joe Hull said. “We need to play better and play a style that compels people to want to watch us play.”
What athletic directors and ticket managers have found is discounted tickets, halftime acts and promotional gimmicks “are more of a Band-Aid than a holistic approach,” said Mike Money, Clemson associate athletic director of marketing and game management.
The time-honored truth remains: if you win, they will come.
“I think we’ve had ups and downs,” Money said. “Seeing college basketball attendance decline as a whole, it’s a headscratcher. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face, but it’s been a continual trend.”
After selling out Littlejohn Coliseum for two NIT games with general admission seating last season, Clemson tried it again in December against Auburn but drew just 7,140 fans.
“It’s definitely a fine line because the lifeblood of our basketball attendance is our season-ticket holders. Those are our most loyal fans,” Money said. “Obviously, we need to keep them at the forefront of our decisions, but our goal too is to grow that group.”
At Colonial Life Arena, a couple of lower-bowl areas which weren’t selling very well were converted to family-value sections with about 300 seats.
“We sold out both in year one and nearly sold out both in year two,” South Carolina chief marketing officer Eric Nichols said. “That tells me we found a product the community likes.”
The Citadel, drawing 1,521 fans per game this season at 6,000-seat McAlister Field House, recently gave away hundreds of free tickets for a “Pack the Mac” promotion. That resulted in a season-best crowd of 4,248 for a Sunday game with VMI, and new athletic director Jim Senter hopes some of those fans will want to come back.
“It’s no different than when you walk around Costco and sample something,” Senter said. “You might say, ‘That tasted good, let’s get some of that.’ We’re hoping that people come in, enjoy the experience and when we offer them a chance to buy our product in the marketplace, they say, ‘Let’s do it, that was fun.’”
If the whole product of college basketball doesn’t intrigue, could attendance numbers continue to freefall?
“If the game doesn’t present a compelling product, I don’t think you can expect people to pay for it,” Bilas said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
Jeff Hartsell, Andrew Miller and Danny Reed contributed to this report.