Gators see spaces in the crowd


The announced attendance for Wednesday night's game between Florida and Southeastern Louisiana was 8,057.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 12:02 a.m.

It started as a quiet December night when Florida faced Southeastern Louisiana at the O'Connell Center.

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The announced attendance for Wednesday night's game between Florida and Southeastern Louisiana was 8,057.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

Florida junior forward Casey Prather wowed fans with an acrobatic layup. Later, the 6-foot-6 Prather dunked a ball in transition, launching from the floor like a gymnast off a springboard.

Florida finished off its lone home game of the month with an 82-43 win, albeit against an overmatched opponent. The announced crowd of 8,057 was higher than expected, considering students were out of town on holiday break.

But even against marquee opponents like Wisconsin and Marquette earlier this season, Florida men's basketball hasn't been a hot ticket. Coming off back-to-back Elite Eight seasons, the Gators have averaged 8,914 fans through six home dates in the 12,000-seat O'Connell Center.

Those numbers account for paid attendance, not actual fans in the seats. Obtained through an open records request, Florida's average turnstile count for its first five home dates was 4,998. Florida had more than 6,000 fans in stands for both Marquette (6,534) and Wisconsin (6,305). UF's low turnstile count was Nov. 20 against Savannah State (3,095).

“I get a little antsy when I look up and see the building isn't full,” said Sun Sports basketball analyst Bill Koss, a former UF basketball player from 1961-65. “But people have a lot that they can do with their entertainment dollar in November and December.”

Likewise, Florida coach Billy Donovan said he doesn't focus on attendance. UF's paid attendance has remained steady since the Gators won the second of their back-to-back national titles in 2007, but the season-ticket base has dwindled from 7,000 to 4,100.

“The two most important commodities people have in their life is their time and their money,” Donovan said. “And for anybody to determine what they should do with their time and their money to me would be a great injustice. In today's economic times, what it would cost to go to events or movies, or buy gas or things like that, I never worry about that stuff. That's each individual person's own decision.”

Florida's average paid attendance last season ranked sixth in the Southeastern Conference, behind Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Alabama. All five have arenas with larger capacities than UF. Based on selling to percentage of capacity, Florida (87 percent) was fourth highest in the SEC, behind Kentucky (98.8 percent), Vanderbilt (95.6 percent) and Alabama (93.8 percent).

Of the teams that reached the Elite Eight last season, UF's attendance was second lowest, ahead of just Baylor.

But Florida associate athletic director Mike Hill sees room for optimism. Season ticket sales are up for the first time since 2007.

“College basketball battles for attention a little bit this time of year,” Hill said. “The full houses typically don't happen until after Jan. 1, and we are hopeful that with the season that we're having, it's going to pick up.”

The empty seats at the O'Connell Center are part of a national trend. With more games available on television and the advent of high-definition TV, more fans are choosing to stay home and watch games from the couch. A Chronicle of Higher Education analysis published last March revealed one in five men's college basketball programs have seen attendance dip by 20 percent or more over the last four seasons. Earlier this month, a game between marquee programs Texas and UCLA at 71,500-seat Reliant Stadium in Houston was played before 2,797 fans.

“What we're dealing with is what the rest of the country is dealing with,” Hill said. “There is more competition out there for your entertainment dollar.”

But Koss said he still thinks the Gators should draw better based on their recent success. Florida is off to an 8-1 start and ranked No. 8 in the country, with its lone loss by one point at No. 5 Arizona.

“If you look at schools like Xavier and Dayton, they have big crowds,” Koss said. “We've won two national championships, back-to-back, been to four Final Fours. We have a real basketball juggernaut.”

Here's a look at some factors that have contributed to Florida's basketball attendance since 2007:

Television

When the Southeastern Conference signed 15-year television contracts with CBS and ESPN for a combined $3 billion in 2008, it brought more national exposure to SEC basketball. During its back-to-back national title runs in 2006-07, Florida averaged 14.5 games on national TV per year. In the past two seasons, the Gators have averaged 24 nationally televised games.

The television contracts have proved lucrative to SEC revenue sharing, with each school receiving checks for about $20 million last season. But more national television also has resulted in later start times for men's basketball games, which causes more no-shows.

Because Gainesville is just the sixth largest metropolitan area in the SEC (232,392 according to the 2010 U.S. Census), Florida relies on fans and alumni from neighboring cities like Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando to attend games.

“It's tough when all of the games are on TV, if they can sit at home rather than driving two hours to and from the game,” Koss said. “For a 9 p.m. tip, that sometimes means not getting home until 1 or 2 in the morning, driving through the fog. And with the way the economy is, it's not easy to draw all of your fans from Gainesville.”

Hill said based on recent attendance figures, the Tuesday and Wednesday night 9 p.m. games tend to have the most no-shows.

“We have five Saturday games in the SEC, which helps,” Hill said. “Saturday crowds are usually full. Where we get hurt are weeknight games late. We're not facing any more 9 p.m games, but we have two 8 p.m. (weeknight) games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.”

Hill said that season ticket holders who can't attend weeknight games can go online and donate their tickets to charity.

On the flip side, Florida has used local television to promote upcoming games. The clever “Live Life in the Dome” commercials have included appearances from Erik Murphy, Kenny Boynton and Donovan.

“We promote the heck out of it and we want to be able to pack the place as much as we can,” Hill said. “It's something that, as a sports world as a whole, we are all trying to deal with, to find more creative ways to make the fan experience more enjoyable.”

The cost

Florida's single-game admission prices ($20 reserved, $12 general admission) are on par with the rest of the Southeastern Conference. Alabama charges $14 for non-conference games and $20 for conference games. Tennessee charges $25 for reserved tickets and $10 for general admission.

“Our basketball tickets have been pretty flat,” Hill said. “You can buy a ticket for $20, it's $12 a ticket for general admission. We were in Tallahassee earlier this month (for Florida at Florida State), and I think it was $50 for a general admission seat.”

The Gators increase ticket prices $5-10 for marquee opponents like Kentucky and Wisconsin, a common practice in the sports industry. Major League Baseball teams charge more when the Yankees come to town. NFL teams charge more for the Steelers or Cowboys.

But Gainesville resident Tim Higgins still thinks that UF has priced the average Alachua County fan out of the market.

“If I want to go with my wife and kid, it's $75 just get in the door, $5 drinks, $4 hot dogs, we're looking at an easy $100 for roughly two hours of entertainment,” Higgins said. “That's more than I make in two hours.”

For season ticket holders, Florida began graduated increases in booster contributions in 2006, the year after winning the first of its back-to-back national titles. Booster contributions went up from $200 to $375 in one season and have leveled off at $500 for all lower bowl seats since the start of the 2008-09 season.

The price increases caused UF's season-ticket base to decline by close to 3,000 (from 7,000 to 4,100). It didn't help that the Gators followed the back-to-back national title seasons with back-to-back NIT seasons.

Julius Davenport, a former Alachua resident, decided not to renew his season tickets for basketball after booster fees increased.

“When they boosted the ticket prices, I looked at the cost compared to what I considered to be competitive games and I decided not to renew them,” Davenport said. “It was costing, in my view, about 100 dollars per game and we didn't think it was worth it.”

Hill said quality of opponents was the No. 1 complaint Florida received as to why season ticket holders chose not to renew. As a result, Florida has improved its non-conference home schedule. The Gators hosted Arizona and Florida State last season and faced Wisconsin and Marquette at the O'Connell Center last month.

“We are trying to schedule two marquee games at home during the non-conference season each year to reward our season ticket holders,” Hill said.

The facility

The O'Connell Center will turn 32 next week. There are still no chairbacks for season ticket holders or students who sit closest to the court. Davenport said when he had season tickets, he chose to buy Level 2 tickets because they had chairback seating.

Since 2000, both Auburn (2009) and South Carolina (2002) have built new basketball arenas on or near campus. In 2007, Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena underwent a $15 million renovation that reduced its capacity (from 24,000 to 21,678) but added luxury suites.

“I don't think there is any question they need to renovate the building” Koss said of the O'Dome. “When you take a look around the league, there are a lot of buildings with nicer environments with programs that have had less success. I think the location is perfect. The size, I think they would do well with 10,000 seats if every seat was a quality seat.”

Hill said he has not heard negative feedback about the O'Connell Center from fans.

“Facilities are important, but if you ask the Miami Marlins, a new facility doesn't guarantee instant attendance,” Hill said. “You have to be able to put a good product on the court.”

Even with its recently built facility, Auburn ranked 11th out of 12 teams in the SEC in paid attendance last season (6,502 fans). Miami, which opened its new on-campus basketball facility in 2003, averaged just 3,936 fans last season.

Earlier this month, Florida's board of trustees approved $10 million toward a $50 million renovation project for the O'Connell Center. But it could take up to two or three years for UF to raise the remaining $40 million through private donations. The improvements would include chairback seats for all levels, luxury suites and a new overhead scoreboard at center court.

“Fan comfort and amenities, those all contribute to the fan experience,” Hill said. “That comes into play, no question. We are excited about what the trustees have done and we're hopeful that it will carry through.”

Student support

Florida sets aside 2,300 tickets for students. Of the 2,300, 980 are in the lower-level bleachers adjacent to the court. Known as the “Rowdy Reptiles,” Florida's students are loud and often stand throughout the game. ESPN college basketball analysts Andy Katz and Jay Bilas have rated the student atmosphere at the O'Connell Center among the best in the country.

Students get in for free and can register online for seats in advance. Or, they can show their campus IDs at the door.

“Our student turnout was terrific last year and so far it's off to a good start this year,” Hill said. “It was a big reason we did well with the Marquette game.”

Hill said the student allotment is increased if the remaining 9,000-10,000 seats in the building aren't sold.

“We'd like to have the building packed with as many students as possible,” Hill said.

The Rowdy Reptiles became an organized student group last September. Rowdy Reptiles president Jake Sillick said he plans to set up a table at Turlington Hall on campus with a laptop in an effort to encourage more students to sign up online for games.

“I think a lot of it is realizing that you can go to basketball games during football season, too,” Sillick said. “We get a lot of students that come out for the SEC games in January, but it would be nice to get them in the building in November and December.”

Florida's current student enrollment is 49,785 undergraduate and graduate students. When asked what could bring more students out, Sillick said: “Giveaways. I know a lot of people who will just come into the building, grab something free, and just leave. It's unfortunate, but it's the way some students think.”

Football state of mind

Like many states throughout the Southeast (with the exception of Kentucky), Florida is football-frenzied. Gator fans flock from as far as Miami and Pensacola to fill 90,000-seat Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for weekly college football games. Attendance for football games has dropped in recent years, but Florida still wound up with as many football sellouts (four in seven home dates) as basketball sellouts (four in 16 home dates) last season.

“I would think if it was a football team coming off similar success, back-to-back Elite Eights, that the stands would be 80- to 90-percent full, instead of 60 percent,” Koss said. “Even for games like Alabama State and Savannah State.”

Koss recalls first arriving to Florida from Bridgeport, Ohio, in the late 1950s and noticing the lack of fan support for high school basketball. State semifinal games were played on outdoor courts.

“They were probably not as many people there as there were for sectional playoff games in Ohio,” Koss said.

Koss played at Florida under Norm Sloan in the 1960s. With winning teams, Koss said Florida routinely sold out 5,500-seat Alligator Alley.

“It was not uncommon to get 6,000-7,000 people in there,” Koss said.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Koss said Florida had a following of about 5,000 core fans in the North Central Florida region. But there were some down crowds. In 1972, when former Florida guard Tony Miller set the school record with 54 points against Chicago State, Koss said there may have only been 1,700 fans in the building.

The move to the 12,000-seat O'Connell Center and more success under Sloan in the 1980s gave Florida basketball an attendance boost. Yet even after Lon Kruger took the Gators to their first Final Four in school history in 1994, the Gators averaged 9,838 the following season, an increase of just 500 fans per game.

Koss remembered Florida returning home from a tough loss to Kansas to face Texas during the 1994-95 season. There were about 6,000 fans at the O'Dome.

“(Lon) was shocked to see so few people in the building,” Koss said. “It was very discouraging to him.”

Donovan has embraced football as a recruiting tool since becoming Florida coach in 1996. Florida has arranged recruiting visits around big-game football weekends, which has resulted in Donovan landing big-name national recruits. Since 2000, after Donovan took the Gators to their second Final Four in school history, Florida has consistently averaged more than 10,000 in paid attendance.

“You look at the product that Billy has been able to put out on the floor, even with all of the negative recruiting from schools like Duke and Kentucky and Kansas, that's a pretty big accomplishment,” Koss said.

Donovan said he doesn't view Florida's basketball attendance or its perception as a football-first school as a factor in recruiting. Of the 12 Division I programs in the state, Florida had the highest average attendance last season, ahead of Florida State (8,541) and Miami (3,936)

“We play in a pretty good environment here,” Donovan said. “I don't think there's any questions about that. I think kids ultimately make a lot of decisions on style of play, relationship with the head coach, those kind of things, opportunity to grow and develop, get better, have a chance to play in the NBA.

“Listen, I think any person, player, coach or anything else, would love to see sellout after sellout after sellout. But I have no control over that. I don't really focus on that.”

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