Mark Story

Five theories on the decline in UK home basketball attendance

The last time Kentucky had a lower average attendance after two games than it does this season (19,991) was in 2005-06 (19,757).
The last time Kentucky had a lower average attendance after two games than it does this season (19,991) was in 2005-06 (19,757).

Through two home games, Kentucky is averaging 19,991 fans in Rupp Arena. For roughly 99.7 percent of the men’s basketball programs in the country, that number would be cause for celebration

At Kentucky, it has people asking What the heck?

Just a season ago, UK’s average home attendance after two games was 22,346 in the 23,000-seat Rupp Arena.

When you combine the drop in early-season attendance, the fact UK has offered six-game mini-packages from its stock of unpurchased season tickets and the photos of rows of empty seats that were tweeted out from last Friday’s season opener against Utah Valley, you have a Big Blue tempest in the making.

Utah Valley Coach Mark Pope talks about Kentucky’s zone defense which helped turn Friday night’s game around.

Is the attendance drop a fluke, or are we witnessing a fundamental change in the “UK basketball experience?” Let’s examine five theories:

1.) Not even UK basketball is exempt from changing market dynamics.

In an age when high-definition televisions make the home viewing of sporting events better in many ways than being at the games, even Kentucky basketball feels the impact.

“The marketplace and the factors that influence whether people attend ball games now are changing,” said Guy Ramsey, UK athletics director of strategic communication. “We’re not immune to that with either our football or our basketball (games).”

Ramsey said Kentucky is offering six-game packages of tickets this year from its unsold inventory of season tickets trying to appeal to consumers who may feel “too busy” to buy a traditional season ticket.

“For some people, a 20-game commitment for a season basketball ticket is asking a lot,” Ramsey said. “We’re trying to be responsive to that and give people another option that may be more friendly to their schedules.”

2.) A sub-standard “consumer experience” in the upper arena is finally catching up with UK and Rupp.

Unlike the chair-back seats in Rupp Arena’s lower bowl, the upper deck has bleachers with no backs. If you sit up there, it’s best if you are friendly with the people next to you — because their elbows are going to spend most of the game in your ribs.

After two games, Kentucky is averaging 19,991 fans in 23,000-seat Rupp Arena. Charles Bertram

The good news is that, as part of the proposed expansion of the Lexington Convention Center in which construction is expected to begin in 2018, chair backs will be installed on many seats in Rupp Arena’s upper level.

3.) Price.

UK raised ticket prices by $5 a game this season. One upper-level season ticket costs roughly $1,100.

Is there a limit to what even Kentucky basketball fans will pay?

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Kentucky’s average attendance after its first two regular-season home games of 19,991 is easily the lowest of the John Calipari coaching era. Michael Reaves

4.) One-and-done “fatigue.”

I’ve had several Kentucky fans express on Twitter over the past week that they have become weary of having to “learn” a brand new team every year.

5.) Rather than going to games, could the UK students be ... studying?

When Sunday’s Kentucky-Vermont game tipped off, there were exactly 60 people — I counted — in the E-Rupp-tion Zone, a standing-only section for UK students behind one of the baskets.

As bigger-name foes come to Rupp, Ramsey is confident student attendance will be strong.

“I think the students still get fired up for the big games,” Ramsey said. “And I also think we need to look at how (UK Athletics) interacts with them. In this day and age, students are very mobile. We’re selling them tickets one, two months out. I’m not sure students today plan to go to ball games that far out. We need to look at that.”

It is possible the first two UK home games were anomalies. As the weather gets colder and people have more time to familiarize themselves with Kentucky’s freshman-heavy roster, attendance could snap back to traditional levels.

Through two regular season men’s basketball games this season, Kentucky is averaging 19,991 fans a game. Last season after two games, the average attendance was 22,346. Rob Bolson

However, if there is something fundamental changing, we may know by the end of next week.

After non-marquee opponents Utah Valley (19,807) and Vermont (20,174) drew less than full houses in Rupp, the Wildcats’ next four home games are against East Tennessee State (Friday night), Troy (Monday night), Fort Wayne (Wednesday night) and Illinois-Chicago (Nov. 26).

If we are living through the end days of UK automatically filling Rupp Arena regardless of foe, these next four games will likely confirm it.

Kentucky’s average attendance after two home games

The average home attendance after two games for every 21st century UK men’s basketball season:

Season: After Two Games

2017-18 — 19,991

2016-17 — 22,346

2015-16 — 22,376

2014-15 — 22,354

2013-14 — 22,669

2012-13 — 21,629

2011-12 — 22,741

2010-11 — 22,712

2009-10 — 23,838

2008-09 — 22,087

2007-08 — 20,090

2006-07 — 21,662

2005-06 — 19,757

2004-05 — 22,300

2003-04 — 21,595

2002-03 — 20,092

2001-02 — 18,649

2000-01 — 19,834

1999-2000 — 22,142