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Pitt

College basketball games go on, but fewer are opting to attend, tune in

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, March 7, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Not even the Heisman Trophy in football-crazed Oregon could draw a sellout crowd at a Ducks men's basketball game.

Oregon, winner of five of its previous six games and possessing one of the more productive offenses in college basketball, was set to play No. 9 Utah on Feb. 22.

With attendance lagging at the four-year-old, $227 million Matthew Knight Arena, Oregon officials decided to honor the national runner-up Ducks at halftime and spotlight quarterback Marcus Mariota's Heisman Trophy. Every available seat was priced at $15.

A total of 10,725 people showed, the only five-digit crowd of the season but still 1,639 short of capacity. “A lot of people came just to get their picture taken with the Heisman,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

NCAA statistics show that as the number of basketball games increases — there were a record 5,453 played last season in Division I — people tend to drift away. Average attendance for the 2013-2014 regular season — all games except the NCAA Tournament — fell to a record-low 4,911, the seventh consecutive year with a decline. It is in further decline, by about 5 percent, this season.

“This might be an example of a number of different trends contributing to an overall decline,” said Swangard, a business analyst who monitors college basketball attendance nationwide.

Too many games, several without much offense and unattractive start times, are just a few of the reasons for the declines, he said.

Schools in the Eastern time zone must contend with 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. tipoffs forced on them by TV.

When Pitt played Boston College on a Tuesday night last month, the game tipped off at 9 p.m. A crowd of 9,142 — the Panthers' smallest for an ACC game this season — showed up.

Overall, average attendance (10,422) at Petersen Events Center (capacity 12,508) was off about 5 percent from last season. It's the fourth-lowest average in the arena's 13-year history. All four have occurred since 2010.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon continually praises his fans for their support, but he said, “Watch games on TV even now in the conference season, and you'll see empty seats. At major programs.”

Akron tried to reward students with a $5 ID card bonus if 800 of them attended any of the final three home games this season. Bad weather and the Zips' late-season slump arrived simultaneously, and the goal never was reached.

The creeping specter of college football also has contributed, Swangard said.

“Fan interest is not even coming on the radar until mid- to late-January,” he said. “In most cases, football content is winning the mind share of those who call (themselves) a college sports fan.”

Swangard remembers when post-Christmas basketball tournaments helped usher the season into fans' consciousness. Now those tournaments compete with an onslaught of bowl games for the entertainment dollar and TV ratings.

“They just can't fight through the football juggernaut,” he said.

One possible solution: Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich has proposed turning basketball into a one-semester sport, starting in mid-December and pushing the start of conference games to February.

ESPN reported record men's basketball viewership last season for the third consecutive year as the network said games averaged 1.454 million viewers. This season, viewership has declined by about 7 percent from the same point last season to 1.355 million through Tuesday, the most recent information available, a network spokesman said. CBS reported its games averaged 2.0 million viewers in 2012-13 before falling to 1.9 million last season and 1.65 million this season through March 1.

Both networks were expecting better ratings this weekend and next for regular-season finales and conference tournaments.

The Final Four doubleheader last season, televised by TBS, produced the most-watched college basketball games in cable history, but viewership for the games — which CBS previously carried — dropped almost 11 percent from 15.7 million to 14 million, according to Nielsen ratings.

That was due, in part, to the 99.2 million households TBS reaches compared to the 112.1 million by CBS. That's also the trade-off under terms of the NCAA's $10.8 billion TV deal that was signed in 2010, took effect during the 2010-11 season and runs through 2024.

This year's Final Four returns to TBS on April 4. CBS will televise the title game April 6.

Networks are saturated with games — 31 contests were televised locally on Saturday.

During the 2013-14 regular season, three games drew only 1,000 viewers, according to Sports Media Watch. One of those featured Virginia Commonwealth, a recent Final Four participant, against Boston College. The game was played Dec. 28, 2013 — during bowl season.

Sports Media Watch editor Paulsen — he goes only by his last name — said college basketball suffers under the weight of relative irrelevancy before the NCAA Tournament.

“College basketball is generally a weak draw during the regular season,” he said, “thanks in part to the sheer amount of games on numerous outlets and the relative unimportance of games before March.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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