Few can argue that the current edition of Denver men’s basketball appears to be on the right track. The team has some excellent young talent, solid coaching staff, and appears to be trending up – assuming they can retain their core players and recruit more talent. The same cannot be said of its attendance, which has collapsed in the past eleven seasons from an average of 5,460 fans per game in 2011-2012 to an average of 787 fans in eight home games this season. While we have seen a season and a half of COVID impacts, the attendance slide was apparent before Covid-19 was even discovered.
Without a doubt, the decline of performance on the court has contributed to the attendance decline but institutional support off the court has tumbled as well.
While the talent on the floor is making a turnaround, the game-day atmosphere is in need of serious resuscitation. Several former DU players have told us of their disappointment in the move of games to the smaller Hamilton Gym and the lack of visible support for the Denver basketball program(s). Yes, they understand that the larger Magness Arena was not an appropriate venue for the current small crowd size but they cite the lack of a pep band, few promotions, bleacher seating, and a low-energy gameday experience as major hurdles to growing the fan base. Leaving play-by-play announcer Tyler Maun at Magness Arena to call road games online is seen as another tangible slight, especially after the apparent savings from moving from Magness Arena to Hamilton Gym. Perhaps DU Athletics deserve a pass for these COVID times but patience and faith in the overall program are flagging – even for the most ardent supporters. And, of course, fans are voting with their feet.
The solution has become abundantly clear, though. Hamilton Gym either needs a complete makeover or DU needs to develop another venue to accommodate basketball. The Ritchie Center is over 20 years old and frankly, Hamilton Gym is a middling venue, even in the Dakotas-centric Summit League. If DU waits even five years, Denver’s facilities will fall to the lower third of programs – just look at South Dakota’s sparkling new facilities or Oral Roberts’ plans for a sparkling new athletic center.
A roadmap was created 20 years ago by DU alumni Tom Douglis and Damien Goddard to elevate the fan experience at DU. The document is called Creating Emotional Bonds and cites the value of creating a successful gameday environment and ways to improve the fan and student experience. Taking tips from that document would provide a solid start. Also, the creation of a fan advisory board, comprised of students, former players, current players, basketball staff, and fans should be created this postseason to provide feedback and input on the marketing and promotion plans before next season begins. Business as usual is not good enough – especially after losing 85% of basketball fans over an 11 year period. Finally, there is the idle, poorly promoted Spirit Fund where fans can direct donations to men’s basketball to promote the gameday experience.
It will grow increasingly difficult for DU to recruit in the current environment as well. If you think facilities and the gameday environment are unimportant to recruits, think again. Players and recruits are more savvy and connected today than ever before and will choose a dynamic student-athlete experience when given the option. In the classic chicken-or-egg scenario, Denver must either improve the gameday experience or accept the likelihood that the on-court product will continue to suffer.
Yes, it starts with a competitive team on the court, no doubt. But even with an improved product on the floor, will there be anyone there to notice? There is so much more work to be done if Denver men’s basketball is going to have legitimate entertainment value, especially in the busy Denver market. Denver Athletics must redouble their effort and investment to bring DU hoops back to relevance.