Mark Story

Why was UK basketball attendance down this year? The answer was hiding in plain sight.

That was fast: Time-lapse video shows a complete game night at Rupp Arena

This is time-lapse footage of 22,108 basketball fans filing in and out of the stands at Rupp Arena as Kentucky played Ole Miss.
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This is time-lapse footage of 22,108 basketball fans filing in and out of the stands at Rupp Arena as Kentucky played Ole Miss.

Attendance for the University of Kentucky’s 18 men’s home basketball games in 2017-18 averaged 21,875.

Barring a monstrous turnout for Syracuse’s home finale with Clemson, that will almost certainly lead the nation.

Yet Kentucky’s average home attendance is down 1,586 a game from last season.

The current year ranks third on the list of least-attended home seasons since UK began playing in Rupp Arena in 1976-77.

In 2001-02, UK averaged 21,014 fans a game. The season before that, Kentucky drew 21,786 fans a contest.

CATS fans
Kentucky’s average home attendance of 21,875 is likely to lead the nation, yet it is also ranks third on the list of least-attended UK home seasons since the Wildcats moved into Rupp Arena in 1976-77. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Other than that, no Kentucky team that played in Rupp Arena has ever performed before fewer fans, on average, than the 2017-18 Cats.

Even Eddie Sutton’s 1988-89 Wildcats — who suffered through UK’s only losing season (13-19) since 1926-27 — outdrew (21,895) the current Cats (21-9) by 20 fans a game.

It was clear in the preseason when UK offered six-game ticket plans out of an inventory of unsold season tickets that this year was going to be different. The empty seats throughout the November part of the home schedule confirmed that.

Over the course of the season, there has been ample speculation over why Kentucky basketball attendance declined this year.

One-and-done fatigue and weariness at having “to learn a new team every year” was a real thing for some in the Kentucky fan base.

Rupp Arena wide shot
In 2016-17, Kentucky averaged 23,461 fans for its home season. For 2017-18, that average fell to 21,875. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

In an era of big-screen, high-definition televisions, willingness to pay high prices to come sit on uncomfortable bleachers in the upper deck of Rupp Arena has lessened.

With myriad entertainment options available to college students that didn’t exist even five years ago, the Rupp student sections were sometimes sparsely filled.

It is unquestionably true that sports attendance nationwide is under pressure in a way unimaginable in even the recent past.

All of those factors likely played some role in what was easily the lowest attended season in Rupp Arena since John Calipari became the Wildcats’ head coach in 2009-10. Before this year, that had been 2013-14, when UK averaged 22,964 in Rupp.

However, having reviewed the full-season data, I think there is one other factor that is the primary reason crowds in Rupp Arena were smaller this season.

It was the schedule — but not in the way you are thinking.

For all the griping early in the season about the caliber of opponent Kentucky was bringing into Rupp Arena, that is NOT the facet of the schedule that caused attendance to lag.

The numbers suggest that when the games were played — what days and what time — is the main culprit that explains the decline in UK attendance this season.

Consider:

1.) College basketball now tips off in November. UK opened this season Nov. 10.

When it comes to TV slots, college football has Saturday locked down in November.

So Kentucky played six regular-season home games in Rupp Arena before it ever had a Saturday contest.

Those six games averaged “only” 20,092 fans.

2.) All season, Kentucky played only five Saturday home games.

Those five Saturday home games — three leagues games plus Harvard and Virginia Tech — were well-attended, averaging 23,253 fans.

In 2016-17, UK had six Saturday home games — four conference games plus UCLA and Kansas. Those six games averaged 24,318.

Losing a Saturday home game this season hurt at the gate.

3.) Two of Kentucky’s nine SEC home games tipped off at 9 p.m. on Tuesday nights.

UK drew 20,609 fans to its 9 p.m. tip with Mississippi State on Jan. 23. Exactly one week later, 21,143 turned out to see the Cats in a late-night tilt with Vanderbilt.

That comes out to an average of 20,876 for the two 9 p.m. tip-offs.

Kentucky’s other seven SEC home contests — all of which started at more reasonable hours — attracted an average of 23,087 fans.

What made the decline in attendance in Rupp Arena this season interesting is that UK men’s basketball has so long seemed invulnerable to the market forces that impact other entertainment options.

If nothing else, we learned in 2017-18 that seems to be changing.

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