We’re coming up on three years since the Pac-12 announced its blockbuster, $3-billion deals with ESPN and Fox for football and basketball that began in 2012-13, and as we’ve come to know, it’s been a mixed blessing. The cash has resulted in a facilities boom in the league, and the proliferation of TV coverage has greatly inconvenienced the fans and affected the live gate.
Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News has done a good job of tracking how the fan discontent has pushed the league’s presidents to request that commissioner Larry Scott try to find a way to trim the number of night football games. It’s a complicated story, detailed well here. The upshot: It’s possible more games will be played around midday, but they may be less accessible for Pac-12 Networks viewers out of the area.
If that comes to pass, it’s a correction of a trend that’s taken hold with the new TV deals: Wonderful TV exposure, but sometimes at the expense of the people who make the live event work — the paying fans.
In that vein, I went through and studied this season’s basketball attendance numbers, which clearly are affected by some of the same TV-related forces. When the TV deals were signed, the league essentially relinquished a lot of control, and now we have regular games on Wednesday nights (boo), Sunday nights (boo) and a lot fewer on Saturdays. Again, it’s a couch-potato-versus-paying-fan dynamic; if you never get to a game, but you’re an avid fan, it’s great — wall-to-wall TV. But some nights are tough, or unappealing, for the paying customers, and that, combined with schedules that are all over the place, is hurting the live gate.
These numbers have obviously been out for awhile, but I haven’t been able to study them in detail until now. I wrote about them in February, when they were trending down from 2013, but it’s only prudent to look at them now with the season complete.
The 12 men’s venues averaged a total of 87,544 fans in 2013-14 (all games, not only league), compared to 91,145 in 2012-13. That’s a drop of 3.95 percent.
Six schools had rising figures, six declined. But four schools had double-digit percentage decreases (including Washington and Washington State), and only two had increases of 10 percent or more (Utah and Stanford).
What should be a cause for concern is that by most standards, this was a strong year competitively for the league. Six teams made the NCAA tournament, most since 2009. And yet fewer people came to the games. If I’m in the league offices, I’m hoping there’s a sweet spot where attendance holds at a satisfactory level but TV viewership is high. But I’d also be worried that the decline continues and instead of fans becoming used to the irregularities, they simply say: Why bother? If that happens, it becomes more of a studio game than it is a live event.
Without the atmosphere, remember, the event loses appeal — in person or on TV.
Unlike football, in which it appears that at least there are some options, I don’t see a lot of solutions in basketball. The networks want inventory, and they want it at times when they have windows that need filling. They’re paying the freight, and the league is only too happy to accept the cash. Seemingly the only realistic stipulation is that no school gets hit too many times with unappealing starts, such as Wednesday and Sunday nights.
By school, the average numbers and the trend:
Arizona: 14,430 (up 1.9 percent). This is statistically pretty insignificant. ‘Zona tends to come close to filling the gym regardless.
Arizona State: 6,687 (up 8.9 percent). I’d put this in the semi-alarming file. ASU featured dynamic guard Jahii Carson and had an NCAA-tournament team. Not a great showing. What happens next year, with a club that’s likely to struggle?
California: 7,754 (down 6.5 percent). Schools in the biggest metro areas seem to suffer the most with fluctuating 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. tips, and Cal fits that description. One is too early, one is too late. And about that NIT crowd of 2,518 for Arkansas . . .
Colorado: 9,635 (down 7.3 percent). Seems surprising, given it was an NCAA team, but maybe it can be explained by the injury to Spencer Dinwiddie.
Oregon: 7,782 (up 2.4 percent). College town, great arena, repeat NCAA-tournament entry, and the Ducks are playing to 4,500 short of capacity? The very definition of the Pac-12’s TV problem.
Oregon State: 3,946 (down 17.5 percent). Who knows what to make of this, other than fans are long-since indifferent to bad basketball and poor direction?
Stanford: 5,111 (up 12.8 percent). It’s still not close to the heyday of Maples Pavilion, but maybe that’s the lag effect of several years of tepid hoops before 2014.
UCLA: 8,136 (down 14.8 percent). Another eye-opener, though the 2013 standard of 9,549 was probably artificially elevated by newly renovated Pauley Pavilion. And yet . . . fans should have been tired of the Ben Howland regime that season, and this year brought a fast-paced, watchable club with some high-end talent.
USC: 4,370 (up 3.0 percent). Seemingly a fairly insignificant gain of 128 fans a night. The Andy Enfield era obviously will depend more on talent than the coach himself.
Utah: 10,311 (up 19.7 percent). One of the league’s few success stories. But then, it’s always been a basketball hotbed.
Washington: 6,582 (down 17.1 percent). Huskies have been trending down since their last NCAA appearance in 2011. How much of it is about the team, and how much the changing starting times in a tough-commute city?
Washington State: 2,800 (down 42.9 percent). Horrific year at the gate for the Cougars, who fell off more than 2,000 a game. And while TV would seem to be the least of their problems, if the team is anything but post-season-worthy, it’s easy for fans to skip treacherous drives and see it at home.