Sliding Men’s Basketball Attendance a Sign of Bigger Issues

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.

Sanford donates $20 million for USD arena | USD |
Sanford Coyote Sports 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.

18 thoughts on “Sliding Men’s Basketball Attendance a Sign of Bigger Issues”

  1. Great evaluation of the current state of DU’s men’s basketball. I am wondering if the attendance in 2010-2011 was inflated by the “Shooting Stars” program that gave away comp seats to bring school kids to the games. It definitely helped attendance and the game day atmosphere.

  2. I think it’s more complicated than just the basketball program – DU hockey is in our DNA as members of the Pioneer community but let’s be honest we see tons of open seats for a top ten team that trashed a ranked opponent this weekend.

    And yes – the nickname controversy is another issue as I feel like the Ritchie Center snd the central administration are two different brands at this point – so that too I don’t think helps. And it’s one big shame as we honestly have the classiest student-athletes out there.

  3. Hamilton is a high school gym. Let’s be honest. Magness wasn’t designed as a basketball arena. A majority of seats are in the deep, deep end zones. The hoops teams need a 5k-6K basketball-only arena in the style of what AFA has (not a bad seat in the arena) in order to give the basketball programs a fighting chance to become consistently competitive DI programs and to get out of the Summit League and ideally to the WCC.

  4. Anons both have valid points that, along with the aforementioned poor performance, only add to the downward spiral of interest in DU men’s basketball. I believe it’s unfair and way off base to blame the current Chancellor, Jeremy Haefner and his lieutenants, for the terrible misguided direction and alienating mistakes of the past couple university administrations.

    I believe Dr. Haefner, Karlton Creech, and the Board of Directors are committed and doing everything in their power to help make all sports, both interscholastic and intramural, successful at our alma mater.

    Over the next few years college athletics will be facing the biggest and most challenging changes in history.

    We’ll have to be patient but, in time, the leadership team now in place will negotiate this unknown swamp, do exciting things for DU, and they WILL succeed!

  5. DU put a nail in the basketball coffin the day Chester Falter punted football. Losing regional rivalries for conference championships have generated generational apathy. Denver would be far better off in the Mountain West than the WCC. Attending DU in the early 80’s had the same problems that plague DU today. Students come to DU as freshman and the attractions outside of DU are more appealing. I have always said DU needs Football to generate interest of students when they hit the Freshman. A secondary problem is the lack of tradition with a Basketball team that has never made an NCAA tournament. I hope the team is able to keep the youngsters on the team. They have talent.

  6. This is not the right time to wonder what is wrong with attendance. COVID, and very recently being one of the worst teams in the country, are the far too obvious reasons. Just keep building the program up, brick by brick. Not necessary at this time to rack brains trying to figure out what promotions could draw an extra couple hundred fans.

  7. In this saturated sports market, unless the team starts getting to the tournament on a regular basis, I just don’t see this program drawing thousands of fans. However, if I were part of the athletic administration, I would start an organic campaign to get fans in the seats. Start with faculty and staff and their families, students, and alums. Provide those groups with free tickets to all home games. Or do $5 tickets and concession/merchandise vouchers. Then canvas the households in the neighborhoods surrounding campus. 80210, 80208, 80231, 80224, etc. Provide those residents with free tickets on a rotating basis. Or do the $5 tickets and concession/merchandise vouchers. Start capturing those stakeholders on campus and close to campus.

    Entice fans to buy season tickets–maybe do a 2 for 1. Buy one season, get the 2nd free.

    I just think if DU can start this organically and build things upward and outward from there, there is opportunity to gain momentum and build a foundational core of fans, particularly as this team continues progressing under Wulbrun.

  8. I graduated in 1980. DU Field House was also a high school type facility! No pep band and no cheerleaders. No atmosphere. DU had small crowds except when a team like Air Force came to play. I doubt the school will build a basketball only venue.

    Previous coach (Billups) was a bad hire and should have been fired after his fourth season. Lots goes into a successful basketball program. Quality teams, quality opponents, good game times. The Summit League doesn’t exact have teams that DU type fans are excited to see! It’s embarrassing to see these teams defeat Denver.

    The team needs to play in Magness Arena at least for half of its games, get a loud pep band, offer ticket deals! I hope the athletic administration is seeking out opinions!

  9. Wake up DU. You probably had one of the best marketing guys ever in Damien Goddard and you kicked him under the bus. This was done a while ago but has not been corrected. Some history for the new folks. DU has always had good hockey program but I’ve noticed a slow erosion in the arena atmosphere. Example: Boone mascot -GONE, wall murals showing the great history of hockey at DU- GONE. Sometimes you need to put the academia aloofness on the side and have some FUN. Make it FUN again. Kids love it. Market to the kids. Worked for McDonalds. This will work for the Basketball and Hockey program. Get Boone back. Wake up.

  10. There is a lot to unpack here, going back many decades.

    The most important factor in increasing attendance is generating a good basketball product to watch, and for a DU basketball program that’s been around since 1904 in various forms, leagues and levels, the product has been largely mediocre-to-poor in most of those nearly 118 years. It’s very hard to build a fan base in a traditionally basketball-poor region like Colorado when the team isn’t very good. Denver is very much a bandwagon town, and when teams are good, the fans come out, and when they aren’t good, they don’t come out. History proves this time and again. Even the worshipped NFL Broncos can suffer attendance drops when they aren’t good on the field, and all other Denver teams have plenty of empty seats when the teams aren’t very good.

    Accordingly, DU is now trying very hard to upgrade the product on the floor, and this year has been a good step forward from the worst basketball team in the D-I era last year.

    DU is putting most of its eggs in the team performance basket, at least for now. They believe that only performance will bring the fans back.

    However, I believe there the second most important attendance factor (and this is the area that DU really struggles), is around generating school spirit and a meaningful game day experience beyond just the basketball product.

    DU has a very uncomfortable relationship with school spirit and its own traditions, even though there are many wonderful traditions that link generations of DU fans across the generations.

    When you look at DU’s traditions, they are slowly dying. The mascot is gone due to the school’s malfeasance, and the nickname is under constant political siege internally. The school newspaper won’t even use the name ‘Pioneers’. School colors continue to be debased by ever more black uniforms. The pep band has vanished, and the fight song lyrics have waned so much in recent years that the students no longer know the words, let alone the alma mater. And game day is still mostly generic, led by canned music you can hear anywhere. Visual displays of tradition on campus remain sub-standard, with the only major new investment in visual tradition is in the hockey locker room where the public can’t even see it.

    We’ve tried a number of times to ignite interest in these traditions, but DU would rather put its money into the product.

  11. I was editor and publisher of a 1985 booklet called “A Tribute to Champions”. It was done to raise money for improving the old DU Arena lobby. I’m not sure how people have heard of this, but we had different people author 12 different stories on baseball, basketball, football, gymnastics, hockey, skiing, soccer, swimming & tennis (Jim Wiste, Peder Pytte, Frank Haraway, Jim Bain). It highlighted all the NCAA championship teams up until 1985. Yes, the University of Denver has a tradition of championships! I have several old copies of the book and would like get them out & donate proceeds to some form of the athletic dept. Maybe I could get Let’s Go DU involved.

    1. Hey Erik. Would love to see the book. You can drop us a note via LetsGoDU and we can take a look. Sounds interesting.

  12. Long time reader, first time commenter here.

    I’ve been coming to DU basketball games since the late Joe Scott years and I started as an occasional attendee but have been a season ticket holder for the last few seasons. I’m not from CO and have no ties to DU aside from wanting to have a local team to support, but I have really latched onto this team and want to see them do well.

    There have been many good points made in the comments I’ve read so far, and it goes without saying that the product on the court (and sometimes the effort or lack thereof), the move to Hamilton and lack of atmosphere/feel and COVID have played a part. But, I’ll add a few additional thoughts:

    I don’t think you can overstate the importance of building a real program where guys stick around for 4 years and not a roster that turns over every year. When guys stick around, there’s a sense of attachment that we as fans (especially the young ones) have to those players and we want to support them and want to see them do well. In the late Joe Scott/early Rodney Billups years, there was a program in place – regardless of level of success. I don’t know about anyone else but I noticed a drastic change when the first grad transfers were brought in. So many players have come and gone since that season and so few have stayed for 4 years.

    Coach Wulbrun did a good thing this past offseason, connecting with season ticket holders and putting in the effort – you can tell he has a business background and knows what it means to work for a sale. I’m confident this thing is moving in the right direction, but hope the school can do their part to right the ship.

  13. D-I hoops is fast becoming a mercenary pro-like environment where there is always a ‘better deal’ around the corner. With the advent of liberalized transfers (no more needing to wait a year to play) as well as bigger name-and-likeness opportunities at the bigger schools, I think many of the better mid-major players are going be approached more often by bigger schools who are in need of proven production transfers to fill holes on big school rosters. It’s going to be much harder for low mid-major schools like DU to keep players for four years. That’s why the coaching relationships, program culture, teammates, loyalty and school atmosphere are so critical for player retention. DU needs to build a an experience that is so rewarding that good players just don’t want to leave…

  14. I would move the games back to Magness, use existing curtains to close up each end. That’s about the same configuration as Princeton’s Jadwin Gym. Get the pep band back and start to create some type of game day atmosphere. May have to get back into rising stars, hopefully the middle school kids will buy a lot of hotdogs and dipping dots! DU/CU will have to figure out how to take advantage of NIL rules. It’s going to be a tough road, like carrying a 500 LB rock uphill. I had season tickets starting with Joe Scott’s first year. I just can’t watch a game at Hamilton. It’s just painful to watch. Current team/coach shows Improvement but if something doesn’t change how many of the current layers will want to stick around for four years?

  15. A solution to poor attendance at DU hoops:
    Lower the price of admission to $3 and sell beer for $3 each

  16. DU would be smart to drastically reduce ticket prices for the general public and make them free for students, those under 18 etc just to get butts in the seats. Once they turn the program around and get a better showing could then try to make some $

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