John Clay: Fan-first plan might reverse falling Rupp attendance

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 11, 2013 


The average attendance through the first seven home games of John Calipari's tenure as head coach has dropped each season. Rupp Arena averaged 23,868 over that span in his first season to 21,799 in the same span this season.

PHOTO BY JONATHAN PALMER — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

The numbers don't lie.

Through seven home games, this is the fourth consecutive year attendance for Kentucky men's basketball games at Rupp Arena has dropped.

That's right, dropped.

Average attendance has gone from 23,868 through the first seven home games of 2009, John Calipari's first season as the UK coach, to 23,116 in 2010, to 23,039 in 2011, to 22,071 in 2012 to 21,799 this season.

To be sure, all numbers are relative. UK still draws more fanatics for an intrasquad basketball scrimmage than most schools seat for an actual game. And across the country, low college sports attendance has turned viral.

And yet this is Kentucky basketball — "We are college basketball," proclaimed Calipari — we're talking about.

If the numbers don't lie, then why are they dropping?

Let's explore four possible culprits.

1. Students as scapegoats is the easiest answer. After all, most of the Rupp Arena empty spaces are upper-level seats reserved for students.

But who wants to sit there?

Back in the day, the student section began at lower level mid-court and proceeded toward the end zone. Now it is the end zone where students stand in the E-Rupp-tion Zone and watch the game from behind the basket support.

The rest of the students are tucked in an upstairs corner where, you know, they won't get in the way.

2. Then there is the weak home schedule. Fact is, Kentucky's three most interesting matchups this season have been neutral-site games — Michigan State in Chicago; Providence in Brooklyn and Baylor in Dallas.

The prevalence of these made-for-TV, big-ticket affairs has all but turned the home-and-home series into an antique. Over the past four years, UK has played Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Washington, Maryland and Providence without any of those schools visiting Rupp Arena.

That's not the case everywhere. This season, Kansas has played at Florida, Indiana has played at Syracuse, Memphis has played at Oklahoma State, Florida has played at Wisconsin, North Carolina has played at Michigan State, Oregon has played at Ole Miss.

Meanwhile, Kentucky and Indiana canceled their home-and-home series.

3. The one-and-dones have done blockbuster business for Kentucky's off-court recruiting rankings and on-court success, paving the way for the 2012 national title, but I sense a creeping one-and-done fatigue.

I hear more and more comments from fans wistful for the good old days when you got to know players over an extended period and could watch them grow, develop, mature and even celebrate "Senior Night."

Those days are probably over, of course, but you wonder if the annual task of learning a new roster has lessened the average fan's enthusiasm — at least the fan who doesn't follow recruiting as religion.

4. The Rupp Arena experience has turned stale. The only noticeable in-game change is the introductions video (and this year, not for the better). Rupp's lower level has always lacked enthusiasm, while the upper level remains cramped and uncomfortable with a poor view of the action.

In the past, the only way to be part of the game experience was to sit with the "real fans" in the nose-bleeds. With every game now on television, that's no longer the case.

Why pay good money to squint from the rafters when you can sit in the comfort of your home with your free parking, your reasonably priced beverage and your Wi-Fi connection, all in front of your HD 60-inch screen television.

At home, or even at your favorite sports bar, you can yell as loud as you'd like at Teddy Valentine without the patron in the next seat telling you to keep it down.

Simply put: These days, there are too many good reasons to just watch the game from home, even if it is a Kentucky basketball game.

To get recruits, Calipari likes to say he runs a "Players-first program."

To put people back in the seats, maybe UK should put more emphasis on a "Fans-first program."

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: Blog: Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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