Noticeable absence: Smaller crowds expected with Citadel unable to qualify for the SoCon tourney

Samford's Kevin Putkonen takes batting practice in advance of the Southern Conference tournament, which begins today at Riley Park.

Brad Nettles

The 10 largest crowds in the history of the Southern Conference baseball tournament all have one thing in common -- The Citadel.

The Bulldogs were involved in each of those 10 games, including the record crowd of 5,419 for a 2003 tournament game against rival College of Charleston.

And that's why the Bulldogs' absence from the SoCon tournament this week at Riley Park will be felt not just on the field, but at the gate as well.

"Obviously, we are not going to have some of those games with 3,500 or 4,000 people here," Geoff Cabe, the SoCon's senior associate commissioner, said Tuesday at Riley Park. "You are not going to get those kinds of numbers without the host team in the tournament."

The Citadel, which has been the host team for the SoCon tournament in 21 of the past 22 years, failed to make the eight-team tournament for the first time since 1987. The Bulldogs (20-36, 8-22) finished last in the 11-team league one year after winning the regular season and tournament titles.

"I would imagine that attendance will be down a little," said Citadel athletic director Larry Leckonby. "This is kind of new territory for us, so we're not sure how it will play out. But the weather will be great and hopefully our local fans and the schools' fans will come out for some great baseball."

Probably the closest precedent for a Citadel-less tourney are the 2007 and 2008 tournaments. In 2007, when the tournament drew a record 35,150 fans, The Citadel made the championship game, losing to upstart Wofford.

In 2008, The Citadel lost in a play-in game on the first day, and the tournament drew a record-low 15,144, a one-year drop in attendance of about 57 percent.

Cabe said many tickets are pre-sold, but that The Citadel's absence will impact walk-up sales. According to Leckonby, pre-sales were down a little from last year, "but pretty strong."

"You always count on that walk-up crowd to put you over the top," Cabe said. "That's probably where we'll see a bit of a difference."

The tournament was in Charleston for 19 straight years from 1990 to 2008 before it was put out for bid and Greenville won the right to the 2009 tournament. It returned to Charleston for 2010 and this year, and will be back in Greenville in 2012 and 2013.

"For a lot of those years, we just kind of extended the tournament (to Charleston) year-by-year," Cabe said. "We felt like we were building something special, and Charleston was the right place for the tournament at that particular time."

Money earned during the tournament goes to the SoCon to cover expenses, with any profit returned to participating teams. But that number is not large enough to make a huge impact, Cabe said.

"This is the only one of our tournaments where we really do that," Cabe said. "Our other tournaments, the revenue remains with the conference. But I don't think many of our schools are really budgeting that money. For most schools, it's really kind of found money, because at the start of the year you don't know if you will qualify for the tournament."

Even without The Citadel, Cabe said, there are plenty of reasons for Citadel fans and other locals to turn out this week. The NCAA's home-run king, Victor Roache, plays for Georgia Southern and will face College of Charleston in the first round tonight.

"The Citadel has such a strong fan base, in Charleston and the whole state," said Cougars coach Monte Lee. "The thing I hope is that The Citadel's fans still come out for the tournament, because it's just a strong fan base and The Citadel is such a good program."

CROWD CONTROL

Yearly attendance at the SoCon baseball tournament since 1997:

Year / Total / Avg. / Site / Champion

1997 / 15,295 / 1,093 / Charleston / W. Carolina

1998 / 22,644 / 1,617 / Charleston / The Citadel

1999 / 26,187 / 1,871 / Charleston / The Citadel

2000 / 26,300 / 1,879 / Charleston / Ga. Southern

2001 / 27,788 / 1,985 / Charleston / The Citadel

2002 / 22,696 / 1,513 / Charleston / Ga. Southern

2003 / 20,212 / 1,347 / Charleston / W. Carolina

2004 / 35,150 / 2,343 / Charleston / The Citadel

2005 / 26,707 / 1,908 / Charleston / Furman

2006 / 28,206 / 1,763 / Charleston / College of Charleston

2007 / 30,834 / 2,056 / Charleston / Wofford

2008 / 15,144 / 1,010 / Charleston / Elon

2009 / 17,820 / 1,273 / Greenville / Ga. Southern

2010 / 21,511 / 1,537 / Charleston / The Citadel