Tech Basketball Attendance Survey
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 1/19/98
Note: this survey is not something that even remotely resembles a scientific poll. This is all strictly anecdotal data and a very small cross-section of opinions.
Recently, I asked for everyone's input on why basketball games aren't attended by more people. In response to my basketball attendance survey, I received about 55 emails. I threw out 10 of those, because they were just comments that didn't really answer the questions I asked, and I used the remaining 45.
First, let me remind you of what I said when asking for comments.
I wrote the following and posted it in the Special Features section for a while:
"I went to the Tech/Liberty game the other night, and even though the students were back in town from Thanksgiving break, there was NOBODY there. The paper generously listed attendance as 4,000, but if that's 4,000 people, then I make $100,000 per year.
"So I've got a question: why don't you go to basketball games? I know a ton of football fans read this board, and most of you do not attend men's hoops games. Why not?
"I want this question answered primarily by the following three groups:
"If you go to the men's games, then I don't want to hear from you. I only want to hear from people who don't go.
"Answer the question honestly - if you don't go because you think we stink, then say so (you would be wrong, by the way). If you think our opponents stink and the A-10 puts you to sleep, say so. If you're too fat and lazy, say so. If you're staying at home and cruising the Internet for nudie pictures, watching Melrose place, or playing Quake, then say so. If you don't care ... give that as your reason.
"One answer I WILL not accept is 'I never know when we have a game.' That is not a reason! If you say that, then what you're actually saying is, 'I don't care.' I always know when the games are, because I carry a schedule in my pocket. If you cared, you would, too.
"So email me and let me know why you don't go! I've got my own theories, but I want to hear the answers from you, the non-basketball-game-going masses.
"This is not a criticism or a judgment of people who don't go - it's a survey, intended to gather data, so speak freely with me. I'm just fed up with the low attendance at hoops games, and I want some answers. I will post the results in a future Special Feature.
"Thanks, folks! - Will."The Respondents
I categorized the emails that I received by the location of the respondent and their reason(s) for not attending. First of all, here's where the people lived who answered:
As you can see, I got a lot of responses from relatively far away places that I didn't ask for, like Eastern Virginia and North Carolina. It is assumed that most of those people dont attend games primarily because of distance, so I didn't count that as an answer, because it would skew the results, and there's nothing that can be done about it. If you live in Arizona, then you live in Arizona, and it's understandable that distance is why you don't come to games.The Answers
I categorized the answers according to the basic theme of the answer, and I allowed some people to give two or more reasons. Note that there is no correlation in this survey between location and reason. As I said before, this is a pretty wide-open, wholly unscientific, anecdotal survey.
Here are the reasons why people don't attend the men's basketball games:
1. The A-10 Conference and the overall schedule are not attractive to me and don't make me want to come see the games.
On this topic, I like this email the best:
"I've always considered myself a big fan, that would make every game if I lived in Blacksburg. (But) I yawn at the thought of going to see a VT-Duquesne conference matchup on a Saturday afternoon. I want to make the point that I am not criticizing other teams in the conferences we compete in, in terms of their play, but rather their name recognition. There are some strong teams in the Atlantic 10 this year, stronger than Tech for sure.
I would rather struggle in front of the press and the nation against an NC State or South Carolina than a Rhode Island or George Washington. There is one home game this year that brings any interest, VT-West Virginia - the rest of the home schedule stinks. I bet that game will have the season's record attendance, and it's out of conference.
The interesting games are away: North Carolina, South Carolina, and even the Virginia game is in Roanoke. How many students will make that? The masses of students don't keep up with who's ahead in the Atlantic 10, so even though George Washington at home is intriguing to me, it won't be to most others. If you put an average ACC or SEC team in there, watch the stands fill. If you can't change conferences, then schedule some home and homes and bring some names to the Cassell! ETSU? Please."
The fact that many people told me that the A-10 conference and the overall schedule are not attractive enough to induce them to come to basketball games is no surprise. This "weak schedule" argument is used by fans as a reason for not buying football season tickets, so it's not a shock to see the same reasoning come up here.
While the A-10 is an excellent conference (particularly this year), there is definitely a lack of "name" teams in the conference. In years past, the Metro could offer big names like Louisville and Memphis State to entice fans, and even the bad teams like Cincinnati - who at that time stunk - South Carolina, and Tulane were names that you either easily recognized or who featured marquee players that were worth seeing.
Cincinnati won the NCAA championship back in the early 60's with legend Oscar Robertson, South Carolina was a football rival and a school with a storied basketball history, and Tulane featured future NBA player John "Hot Rod" Williams, who was worth the price of admission alone.
And I don't even need to tell you about Louisville and Memphis State. The Metro in the 80's was big-time, exciting basketball.
These days? Fans are served a steady diet of Fordham, LaSalle, Duquesne, St. Joseph's, and St. Bonaventure. The two marquee names in the conference, Massachusetts and Temple, are in the other division of the A-10 and only visit Tech once every two years. Rhode Island, one of the better teams in the conference, is also in the other division. Only GW, with whom the Hokies are establishing a nasty rivalry, is in Tech's division and visits every year.
Out of conference, no one wants to play the Hokies in the Cassell. No one. Although next year's schedule features a visit from Wake Forest, that kind of action is a rarity. Cassell Coliseum is still carrying the reputation as a tough place to play, which it earned in the 80's, so good teams from out of conference have no interest in playing the Hokies in Blacksburg.
In state, UVa refuses to play Tech in Blacksburg, and every other state team is dying to play Tech - at their own place. JMU, William and Mary, and ODU, for example, all love to play Tech, as long as it's not in Blacksburg. Those teams can count on the Hokies to bring huge groups of fans in their parts of the state, so they'd rather play at their own venues, and make money. That's good for them, but what does it do for the Hokies home attendance? Nothing.
So the problems are that the name recognition of the conference is lame, big name teams outside the conference won't play at Tech, and good in-state teams would rather play Tech at their own places or on neutral floors. The result? You get a home schedule like this year - UT-Martin, Liberty, Radford, ETSU, WVU (over Christmas break), VMI, St. Joseph's, UMass, LaSalle, Fordham, Xavier, Dayton, GW, and Duquesne.
I can hear all of you snoring.
2. I can't make the weeknight games at 7:00 and 9:30.
This is another thing that keeps the crowds down. I live in Christiansburg, relatively close to the Cassell, and it's tough for me to make it to games in time. A better starting time would be 7:30, and a perfect starting time would be 8:00, but only one game this year (the UT-Martin game - woo-hoo!) was scheduled to start at 8:00. All other games during the week are either at 7:00 or 9:30.
It's simple - with 7:00 games, you can't get there in time, and with 9:30 games, you don't get home until midnight or later. Neither alternative is acceptable to people who, unlike me, have a life.
As far as I know, the 7:00 starting times are for television, which is kind of funny, because only Tech's 9:30 game with LaSalle (woo-hoo!) is supposed to be on TV, on ESPN2, as part of the A-10's TV package with ESPN. So the Hokies are aligning their schedule for something that doesn't happen - TV appearances. And the fans stay home and eat dinner and watch "Friends" instead.
Move the weeknight games to 8:00 and watch attendance go up.
3. Tech is a football school, and basketball is the red-headed step-child.
There you have it, reason #3. This is really more of a theory than a fact, and it's a bizarre theory that's hard to quantify accurately. Not one person emailed me and said, "I don't go to basketball games because I like football better."
People did say that they'll make time for football, with its tailgating and large groups of friends that attend, whereas basketball, since it's not such a big event, doesn't draw people in. Football, with its relatively regular scheduling - the games are on Saturday, by gosh, and it's just a question of what time - is more predictable and easier to plan for and remember.
And let's face it. Football is a big deal. It's an all-day event. Basketball is more of a two-hour diversion.
4. The team is not winning enough and has no tradition.
Winning is the cure for lack of interest, that's for sure uh, maybe.
It's a well-known fact that in the 1995/1996 season, when Tech spent the entire year in the Top 25 and went 23-6, the stands were still almost never full. The reason why is reason #1 above. Even though Tech had a great record and was a top-ranked team, the opponents were as dull as frozen mud.
And it's pretty hard to establish a tradition of any kind when your team belongs to conferences with memberships that change almost yearly. Tech was establishing a great tradition in the mid-80's, right up until the Metro started buckling and eventually folded.
And whenever the Hokies have been good recently, they haven't been able to maintain it and build a following. The good teams in the mid-80's were followed by NCAA probation and the awful Frankie Allen-coached teams of the late 80's and early 90's. Bill Foster's NIT and NCAA teams of 1995 and 1996 were followed by last year's 14-15 team, and this year's struggling (currently 6-8) young squad.
So Tech is an inconsistent squad that plays in here-today, gone-tomorrow conferences. People don't attend Tech basketball games, because they don't know what Tech basketball is.
5. It's too expensive.
If you're a mom and dad who are trying to take two kids to a game, you'll have to shell out $40 for four tickets. If you want to buy food at the game, add another $20 or so. I don't have kids yet, but when I do, I won't relish throwing $60 down the drain to watch Tech play LaSalle, and particularly not at 9:30 on a Tuesday night. Nuff said.
6. Basketball is not a social event, at least not like football is.
A friend of mine emailed me and said, "Beyond yourself, I don't know anybody who goes to basketball games, whereas we have a group of 10-20 close friends who attend the football games."
I'm sure that's a common problem and a reason why basketball games are lightly attended. Try this - walk up to someone at work next week and ask them if they want to go to a Tech basketball game. Then wait for the funny look, which is a cross between, "You're kidding, right?" and "Hmmm are you hitting on me?"
Then ask them next fall if they want to go see a Tech football game. Watch their eyes light up as they start planning the tailgate and figuring who else to invite.
Basketball is just not the big event that football is, so it doesn't draw the casual fan like football does. When you have to rush to a weeknight basketball game and then rush home afterwards, the sole focus is on the game itself. And if the game is not of tantamount importance, or the game is against UT-Martin or LaSalle oops, there I go again, harping on reason #1.
7. The style of play is boring.
I heard this one a few times. This one email sums it up:
"Perhaps a big reason for the drop-off in attendance in general (on any night) is the more slow down style of ball played now. The old Hurryin' Hokies generated an atmosphere of excitement even when they lost. Unless a person is real student of the game, he/she gets bored unless there are fast breaks and the occasional dunk. Notice how those always excite the crowd? Excited crowds return
"I realize that Tech has not had the talent to try to run with many teams the past few years, but I hope we try to push it up the floor little more. Charlie Moir did a nice job of getting his teams to run more at home to get the crowd in the game (like a sixth man) and then slow it down on the road for the opposite reason."
The key phrase in that email is "unless a person is a real student of the game." I like basketball and have played it all my life, so I don't really care whether or not the Hokies are running and dunking constantly. But I'm unusual. The casual fan does not care to go to a game if they're going to be sitting on their hands most of the time, bored by a halfcourt offense and a heavy dose of fouls mixed with 35% shooting by both teams.
My wife had no interest in going to basketball games the last two years, but this year I dragged her to a game, and she enjoyed it much more. The reason? Two incredible passes that Jenis Grindstaff threw that had the crowd shaking its head in disbelief, as well as a couple of Rolan Roberts and Andre Ray thunderdunks that got the crowd excited.
Bill Foster, God love him, didn't have the talent to run with the big dogs, and he knew it. So he kept his players on the porch, and the result was a slowdown, half-court style of ball that may have won games, but it alienated the casual fan.
Now before you email me and slam me for criticizing Coach Foster, just chill your boots. I'm not criticizing him. He did what he had to do to win. Unfortunately, it was dull, particularly after Damon Watlington, arguably his most exciting ballplayer, graduated. Listen to what one female fan, who moved here recently from Winston-Salem (the middle of ACC country) had to say about last year's team:
"Last year, I went to about 4 games, all in which neither team scored more than 15 or 20 points in the first half, and usually ended the game with a score of 45-40 (Tech losing). That is why I do not go much. It has been very boring to watch 10 guys run up and down the court, shoot, miss, rebound, shove, and then run down the court again."
That's cold. That's heartless. And that's deadly accurate. Except for the part about "running down the court," which didn't happen in most of the games I went to last year. They didn't run. They walked. Most of the time, by the time Troy Manns walked the ball down the floor and arrived at the top of the key, there were 22 or 23 seconds left on the shot clock. This was generally followed by 20 seconds of passing and an awkward-looking shot that rarely went in. That's not entertaining.
8. Kids and family take up too much of my time.
There's not a lot I can add to that. Children have always taken up a lot of their parents' time. These days, fathers in particular are more involved in their children's lives than they used to be, and there isn't much time left for things like going to basketball games, particularly on a week night, against Fordham . sorry, I'm digressing again.
In the old days, perhaps a dad would take his two sons to a game with him, but these days, that's a $30 minimum expenditure, not to mention that the guy three seats away might be screaming profanities at the refs, and you don't want your children to hear that.
Sporting events have become less child-friendly than they used to be, because the cost of attending is rising, and the crowds and the game experience are sometimes more hostile and not appropriate for children. Most parents don't relish the idea of their young children hearing the Tech students yelling in unison at opposing players, "Sit down! You suck!"
Why risk that and why spend all that money when you can stay at home and play games or watch TV for free?
9. Miscellaneous reasons
Other reasons that were listed by more than one person were:
Reasons listed by one person each, that I thought worthy of mentioning, are:
I could go on and on about bigger issues and societal shifts that are reducing basketball attendance. For example, when I was a kid, we got three channels on television, and we had no video games or VCR's, so we went outside and played football or basketball. I grew up with a love of both sports, a love that I'm sure today's technologically-inundated kids who live in townhouses with no yards don't ever develop.
I could talk at length about that kind of stuff, but this report has been long enough as it is. So let's move on to the solutions.
I'm not going to comment on the viability of any of these solutions. I'm just going to throw them out there. And these solutions are strictly my own suggestions, so if you don't like them, fire away at me.
Get into a better conference - for all sports. This is our often-used solution for every ailment, large or small, suffered by Tech sports. For example, the Atlantic 10 is arguably a better basketball conference than the Big East, but Syracuse, Georgetown, UConn, Villanova, and company would draw more fans to Cassell than Fordham, St. Bonaventure, and LaSalle.
Schedule the weeknight games for 8:00, not 7:00 and 9:30. Then people could fit them in their schedules. I'll bet this would have a bigger impact than you might think. Not at first, because people would take a while to get back into the flow of things, but eventually, it would help. If ESPN wants to show a game, then schedule it for 7:00 or 9:30, but put the others at 8:00.
Make the experience more enjoyable - for everyone. Jettison people, including students, who are cursing at the refs and players. And instead of the current moronic half time shooting contests and giveaways, do something else. Whatever happened to the high-flying, dunking, trampoline daredevils that we used to see during half time back in the 80's? If the games are going to be slow-moving slugfests, at least make half time more enjoyable. But keep the High-Techs, the Hokie Bird, the cheerleaders, and the band - they're entertaining.
And get a real scoreboard, for crying out loud, one that hangs down from the center of the ceiling and actually has room to put some information on it. We spent over $3 million beefing up Cassell's roof and ceiling, and now it can handle one of those fancy scoreboards, but I don't hear anyone talking about that as a facilities project.
Make the experience more affordable. Reduce the cost of weeknight games from $10 to $7 or $8. Offer substantial discounts for season tickets (if you fix the other problems, people will actually use their season tickets).
Make the experience easier. Run shuttle buses from the distant parking lots to Cassell Coliseum so people don't have to walk so far in the cold weather. Also, when the walk-up crowds are huge, like the one for the WVU game this year was, set up additional ticket lines to speed up the purchase of tickets. At this year's WVU game, some people didn't get a ticket and get to their seats until there were 9 minutes left in the first half.
A Message to the Tech Athletic Department
When I say the following
what I'm really saying is, act like you (Virginia Tech) care about your customers.
The old ways of doing business are not valid anymore. Tech sporting events are entertainment, and as such, they must compete with other forms of entertainment for the consumer's attention and money.
Movies have become better in the last ten years. They are often awe-inspiring exhibitions of special effects. TV has expanded from three or four channels to dozens of specialized offerings. Video cassettes, video games, and computer games are now widely available, and fifteen years ago, they weren't.
The entertainment landscape has changed drastically in the last 10-15 years, but Tech's way of producing and marketing basketball games hasn't moved forward one iota, as far as I can tell.
Many of the basketball attendance problems cannot be solved overnight. We can't improve the name recognition of the A-10 teams, and we can't get into the Big East or SEC for all sports by snapping our fingers. We can't easily string together ten straight NCAA appearances and suddenly have a "winning tradition."
But there are certain things that are under the control of the Virginia Tech Athletic Department, things that can be fixed and improved. And they should be. It's time to wake up and be more competitive for the consumer's dollar, or else the downward trend in attendance will continue. This isn't criticism. It's just a suggestion to use your imaginations to improve the situation.