By Matthew Keck —
Since 2013, the University of Louisville men’s basketball team has seen a steady decline in attendance at home games. With new leadership bringing improved morale to the program, the university is looking to shift the attendance trend in a positive direction.
From 2013 to 2018, the average attendance at men’s basketball games decreased by a staggering 23 percent, dropping from 21,571 to 16,601 in that timeframe.
At the end of the 2013 season, the average attendance for home games was at 21,571. The next four seasons averaged around 21,100 fans for each home game, the lowest year being 2017 with an average of only 20,486 fans per home game.
Over the last two decades, the 2018 season saw the lowest average attendance, averaging a mere 16,883 fans each home game. This was the first time the team averaged under 20,000 people per game since moving into the Yum! Center in 2010. It also marked the program’s first time being outside of the top five in the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball attendance since 1995.
As the average attendance went down, so did the number of season ticket holders. For the 2016-2017 season, there were 19,086 season ticket holders, but over the next two years, U of L only averaged about 15,300 season ticket sales. Again, 2018 was their lowest ever with only 13,672 season tickets sold.
U of L’s biggest declines came after the 2017 scandal surrounding the men’s basketball program. Amid the firing of then coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich, the massive drop in attendance had begun. By February of the 2017-2018 season, the average attendance was at 17,474.
Scandal fatigue had set in at this point, and the interim coach at the time, David Padgett, wasn’t getting it done on the court to bring in fans. At the end of this season, the men’s basketball program had a 19 percent decrease in the average attendance compared to the 2017 season.
Even with new head coach Chris Mack restoring life to the program last year, the average attendance for games was 16,601. This also put the team outside of the top five in average attendance for the second straight season.
In an effort to bring attendance back up for the 2018-2019 season, U of L offered a “Perfect Attendance Perks” plan that rewarded fans for coming to every home game. The plan offered fans a 10 percent discount for this year’s season tickets if they had at least one ticket scanned at each game during last season.
Even fans who did not attend every home game received perks depending on how many games they attended. Those who went to 17 games last year received 5 percent off season tickets this year, and fans who went to at least 15 games gained access to a postseason event.
The “Perfect Attendance Perks” will continue for the 2019-2020 season along with new monthly perks being offered. For the month of November, five fans will gain access to a team practice and a signed basketball for having perfect attendance.
Basketball fans had even more incentive to buy season tickets this year with about a 44 percent cut in prices for the upper level, mid-court and end zone/corners. This is also the first season that men’s basketball season ticket prices varied upon seat location, whereas before they were $983 for every season ticket holder.
Looking at the upcoming 2019-2020 season, U of L is expecting about a 8 percent increase in season ticket sales, with 14,881 purchased so far. Of that 14,881, there are 414 seats that are unpaid or only partially paid, so there could be a decrease in that number by the end of the season.
During the struggling years, U of L stood behind its fan base, confident they will show up. “You look at schools across the country and we’re doing very well,” said Kenny Klein, senior associate athletic director of sports information.
Starting with the home opener Nov. 10, fans have the option to rent suites with multiple rental plans available. Prices start at $2,500 for single games and go up to $15,000 for a five game plan that includes two non-conference games, two conference games (excluding North Carolina and Virginia) and one premium game (North Carolina, Virginia or Michigan).
With the rental of a suite, fans get 16 suite tickets, four parking passes and six suite passes per game. They also offer a three game package, and there are four party suites in which seats are sold individually. Suites do not include complimentary food, but they offer a waiting service.
As a result of lower attendance, the university has been advertising the suite rentals to fans for this season. Of the 71 suites in the Yum! Center, only 62 have been rented out for the entire season, ranging from $85,000 to $92,000 for the year. Klein said that nine unrented suites for the season is more than they’ve had in the past.
He cited the reason for this being that companies who normally rent them for the season aren’t getting a tax break on them. “Companies that may have had them using them as entertainment and such, the cost of that isn’t necessarily tax deductible,” said Klein. He reinforced that this was the main cause of people dropping their rentals and not the prices.
More affordable general admission ticket prices and package plans are efforts to bring more fans back. “We’ve made a lot of those upper seats very affordable,” said Klein. “We’ve got a six game package out there right now where you can pick and choose certain games.”
This will also be the first year that season tickets for students are not available. Instead, the university introduced “Flight 23,” a ticket subscription service which is saving students more than $100 a year on sporting events. Tickets are on a first come first serve basis for men’s basketball, meaning that not every student is guaranteed entrance to home games.
Thomas Lotspeich, freshman, said he had trouble getting into the football game against Notre Dame earlier this year with the “Flight 23” system. “There should be more clear instructions, especially for the first week. I only got in after the school opened up other sections for students after the student section got completely taken up,” said Lotspeich.
Similar miscommunications have happened with the first home basketball game as well. Lotspeich said he did not get tickets to the season opener because he was under the impression that he claimed tickets for two weeks worth of games and not on a game-to-game basis.
President of the official student section the “Ville’ns,” Andrew Wiemels, said he noticed student attendance drop in the last several years. He is optimistic that attendance will increase with coach Mack. “I think we will have an increase in attendance, the buzz around the team is huge both nationally and on campus,” said Wiemels.
Klein said they have allotted enough student seating for home games that a student not getting in is unlikely. “We want our students there,” said Klein. “That’s important to the atmosphere of the games.” He said that is one of the biggest differences between professional and college sports.
Attendance for the home opener against Youngstown State Nov. 10 was a sparse 14,761, leaving almost 8,000 seats empty. This is also under the team’s average last year.
“I think there’s a lot of people who feel good about our program right now,” said Klein.
Photo By Matthew Keck // The Louisville Cardinal