Mark Story

Is it time to accept a ‘new normal’ in Sweet Sixteen attendance?

Photo slideshow: Trinity defeats Scott County to claim state title

Trinity beat Scott County 50-40 to claim the state title in the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys' Sweet Sixteen championship Sunday at Rupp Arena.
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Trinity beat Scott County 50-40 to claim the state title in the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys' Sweet Sixteen championship Sunday at Rupp Arena.

If the KHSAA’s hope was that moving the boys’ Sweet Sixteen ahead on the calendar so it would not overlap with the men’s NCAA Tournament would boost attendance, then last week’s state tournament disappointed.

After Trinity defeated Scott County Sunday to claim the 2019 Kentucky boys’ basketball state championship, the total announced attendance for the eight sessions of the 102nd state tournament in Rupp Arena was 96,048.

That was slightly down from the 96,527 attendance figure for the 2018 state tourney which competed head-to-head with the first week of the NCAA Tournament.

This is the fifth straight year that the Sweet Sixteen has failed to reach 100,000 in total announced attendance. You have to go back to 1958-62 to find the last time the state tourney went five straight years without reaching six figures in total attendance at least once.

Yet, for varying reasons, I believe it is time to change how we view the current level of boys’ Sweet Sixteen attendance.

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Trinity star David Johnson, with ball, was named 2019 state tournament MVP after leading the Shamrocks to their second Sweet Sixteen title since 2012. Matt Goins

In an era of rapidly changing sports fan consumption patterns, the state tournament is hardly the only one of Kentucky’s signature sports attractions whose attendance is not presently matching its peak levels from the past.

Consider:

University of Louisville men’s basketball — a program, obviously, beset by turmoil in recent years — finished 2018-19 with its lowest average home attendance (16,601) in 34 seasons.

University of Kentucky football — in the midst of a three-year bowl streak — has failed to reach 60,000 in attendance for 16 of its last 21 home games at Kroger Field (capacity 61,000).

University of Kentucky men’s basketball — the gold standard for team sports in the commonwealth — has played to less than capacity crowds (23,500) in Rupp Arena 31 times out of its past 36 regular-season home dates over the past two seasons.

UK basketball has drawn less than 23,000 fans 26 times since the start of the 2017-18 season. Four times in the past two seasons, the Wildcats have played in front of crowds of less than 20,000.

Let’s be real: When Kentucky Wildcats basketball cannot count on consistent sellouts, the overall tenor for sports attendance in our state is stark.

Against that backdrop, the fact that the boys’ state tournament essentially held its own in attendance from last year to this can be viewed as a positive.

We learned some other things from this year’s state tourney.

In 2013, because of a calendar quirk, the boys’ state tournament was also held on the final week of the men’s college basketball regular season. That year, the Sweet Sixteen drew 123,363 fans.

The fact that this year’s earlier dates for the Sweet Sixteen did not lead to a robust increase at the gates proves that 2013’s attendance bounty was about teams with large fan followings, Madison Central (champion) and Montgomery County (semifinalist), making deep tournament runs and not when the event was held.

While recent state tournament attendance figures are well below the event’s Rupp Arena heyday — the Sweet Sixteen drew 140,266 in Rupp in 1987 and 138,674 in 1991 — the tourney is still attracting substantially more fans in Lexington than it did the last time it was played in Louisville in 1994 (84,278 at Freedom Hall).

Based off observation, the base of fans who attend the state tourney year after year appears to be aging and, slowly, giving up their seats. It is not apparent that there is a younger generation of fans with the same passion for the state tournament available to replace those departing.

For those of us who love the Sweet Sixteen and want it to mean something similar in Kentucky’s future to the large place it has held in the commonwealth’s sports past, that is worrisome.

Nevertheless, as the Herald-Leader’s Josh Moore pointed out in a story last year, other states would all but sell their souls to have high school basketball state tournaments attract crowds of the sizes we have recently been lamenting here in Kentucky.

For those of us who remember the 1987 Sweet Sixteen averaging over 17,500 fans per session, it’s hard to accept this year’s average of 12,006 fans a session as successful.

Yet, given the downward pressures now on live-event sports attendance across the board in our state, we should probably view the Sweet Sixteen’s current attendance cup as being half full.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.


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