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Attendance and Fan Interest

March 3, 2003 Columns No Comments

Touring Around New England

by Phil Kasiecki

A couple of months ago, my colleague Adam Shandler recounted his experience several years ago at the Jimmy V Classic. As I read him describing the rather empty Continental Airlines Arena, I found myself identifying with much of it.

Earlier this season at the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl Classic for Kids, the seats at Philips Arena in Atlanta were about two-thirds empty when Georgia and Gonzaga tipped off, and by the time Tennessee and Georgia Tech were playing, they might have been about half full (the final attendance figure was a little over half of capacity). It is worth noting that the Atlanta Falcons had a pivotal game right next door at the Georgia Dome.

Attendance varies from school to school and more fans will usually show up for games against arch-rivals or the best teams. Some schools will sell out regardless of the team’s play and some will have small crowds regardless, while some have widely varying fan turnouts based on factors like the team’s play or the opponent on a given night. A good example of the latter is in my backyard at Boston College.

Two seasons ago, the Eagles were the toughest ticket in town as they won 27 games; last season they had just two sellouts (one against Duke) and the crowd at many games seemed to be nowhere near a sellout. Attendance is down again this season as the Eagles have only recently come alive, having won five in a row and eight of their last nine games. They have struggled at home until recently, a fact that has been mentioned here before. Overall, average attendance in the Big East is up this season by about 10%, and the Eagles are 12th in the 14-team conference in attendance after being 10th last season.

One must wonder why college basketball fans in places like Boston do not come out in droves unless their team is doing well or a top-ranked team is in town. There are some things that can help explain this, and perhaps provide insights into the overall picture with fan interest in college basketball. I had the chance to explore this subject recently with Ted Sarandis, a talk show host on WEEI 850 AM in Boston and the radio play-by-play announcer for Boston College, and an avid salesman of the college game.

Boston is first and foremost a professional sports town, a city known for its love affair with the Red Sox no matter how many near-misses they have in the World Series. Parents who want to take their kids to a sporting event want to take them to historic Fenway Park to see the Red Sox, or in the past it was the Boston Garden for the Celtics and Bruins (now at the FleetCenter). Considering the high ticket prices – notably, the Red Sox have had historically high ticket prices in recent years – as well as prices for concessions, the cost of attending a professional sporting game can be almost prohibitive for the average family. By comparison, attending a college game can be much cheaper for a good product. This is not lost Sarandis, who often encourages fans to go to games on Ted Nation, his weeknight talk show.

“The first human interest angle is the pocketbook,” Sarandis says. “When the Red Sox have the highest ticket price in Major League Baseball; when the average ticket price for the Bruins and Celtics is through the roof; and you take four people to a Bruins or Celtics game, and go to dinner in the North End and park, it costs you $450 a night. When you come to a game at BC or BU (Boston University) or Northeastern, and you take four people and have some concessions, it going to cost you under $100.

“It’s an entertainment bargain that not enough people know about because a good portion of the electronic media has chosen to ignore college athletics,” he said. “It’s a situation where the schools have to be more pro-active. They have to follow BC’s lead and do more marketing, do more promotions, do more outreach to youth groups, get a little bit of an advertising budget if they can.

The product is certainly good, as anyone who goes to college games in the area can attest. Additionally, the major newspapers in Boston generally do a good job of covering college basketball, as well as other college sports. So why does it seem like a “hidden gem” of sorts?

“Still not enough people know what a tremendous, tremendous buy and value college sports is,” Sarandis said before commenting on the newspaper coverage. “I’d like to see two things: I’d like to see schools take more of a pro-active marketing approach. The second thing is I’d like to see the electronic media, first and foremost, come to some of the games in the regular season, not just the month of March, and I’d like to see them, on the Sunday night television sports shows, do a two-minute segment on what’s going on with these teams, whether it’s hockey or basketball. Try to be a little bit different; try to appeal to your audience’s pocket book.

“It’s frustrating to me because I think there’s a lot of people who, if they had the chance, would come to the games if they knew what was going on and were more aware of what was happening.”

Several years ago, the University of Massachusetts had a show late on Sunday nights with then head coach John Calipari. The school bought the time slot for it, and it might not be a bad idea for Boston College to do something similar and feature Al Skinner, Jerry York and Tom O’Brien. While it sounds like a good idea, the onus should not be on a school such a manner, and that such an idea is mentioned in this light is telling.

“I’d like to see those television sports anchors, I’d like to see the guys at my own station come to some college games, but they’re conspicuous by their absence,” Sarandis adds. “You generally never see electronic media people at press row. They just don’t go to the games, and I’m convinced that it’s because they don’t like college sports, they don’t follow college sports, they’re not interested in college sports, so they totally ignore college sports. It really is a bit of a hidden agenda in that regard.

“They talk about the subjects that they’re interested in, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they are interested in it, it leads to a large audience. If you devoted some coverage to college sports, you would help increase the interest level, and I think that is one of the difficult things that college sports has to overcome in Boston, the fact that they are very much ignored, by and large, by the electronic media.”

College sports should not replace professional sports by a long shot, but they should be included as part of the normal sports coverage and part of the experience of the average sports fans.

“In a good sports town, there should be room for everybody,” Sarandis adds. “You can be a pro fan, and also be a college sports fan. There’s no reason why it has to be mutually exclusive, it shouldn’t be either-or. You should be able to enjoy the spectrum of sports, and I just think that if you don’t experience college sports, then you’re missing out.”

With Boston College, he notes a very strange phenomenon that contributes to the crowd turnouts.

“The strange phenomenon of Boston College is the fact that you have season ticket holders who don’t show, and that’s really a crazy, crazy thing,” he said. “They sell probably 90% of the tickets, but they have a lot of games where the season ticket holders just leave them on the kitchen table or the bedroom dresser. I just hope we can develop a culture where, if you’re not going to use the tickets, go down to your local police or fire station, or national guard armory or public school, and give the tickets away to people who want to go to the games, rather than just have them go to waste.

While college athletics is a good economic choice, another obstacle in the Boston area could be a tax on sports tickets. Over two months ago, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino mentioned a proposal to place a tax on tickets for entertainment and sporting events in Boston. It appears unlikely to pass, a good thing since it would be a very difficult blow to overcome.

“That would especially affect college athletics in a real negative way in the city of Boston proper,” Sarandis says. “I can tell you that all of the schools would fight to the death to make sure it didn’t happen.”

Many sports fans, both around Boston and nationally, do not speak highly of professional sports. Players are regularly described as overpaid or selfish, and the term “prima donna” is also fairly common. Many fans think players are all about the money (whether or not that is accurate is another matter). In contrast, college players are not being paid; indeed, schools make a lot of money off of players while the players do not make a penny.

Despite this, we see more people paying the higher ticket and concession prices to see professional events than college games. This might leave one pressing for an explanation, but Sarandis touched on another part of Boston’s sports culture that helps explain this.

“I think it’s more a case of Boston being a big event town,” he said. “People want to see big events. It’s why the NCAA Tournament (the first and second rounds held at the FleetCenter are sold out) will be a hot ticket, because it’s a big event. People want to see big events, people are drawn by star power, that’s always fascinated folks in the northeast corridor.

Boston is also home to the America East Tournament for the second straight year, as it was held at Northeastern last year and will be at Boston University next weekend. Last year, about 2,000 fans were present on both days. Sarandis takes the long view of the conference tournament, noting that patience and marketing will be keys to its long-term success.

“They need to make it a real special weekend,” he said. “The key is the athletic directors in America East have to spend a little money, and that’s been an issue. They have to give Chris Monasch and his staff some advertising and marketing money to promote this tournament. They have very, very little money to advertise and promote this.

“If you make it an annual event in Boston, people will get used to it and people will start to go. But you have to have patience, it’s not going to be a home run overnight. That’s been a problem historically here.”

One thing America East can do is an event along the lines of a fan fest. Last year, the Pac Ten Tournament returned after a 12-year hiatus, and they held a Pre-Game Party (fan fest-type of event) right across the street from the Staples Center prior to the championship game. It was a great success, as many turned out for it before heading across the street for the game. The idea all goes back to a previous point Sarandis made.

“All of those kinds of things help, but you have to have a budget,” he adds. “The schools from America East have to realize that you have to spend a little bit of money to make money.”

In recent years, many teams have opened up new arenas, which have a big impact on attendance and the feel of home games. The University of Rhode Island opened up the new Ryan Center this season, and attendance has taken a big jump. Part of it is because the Ryan Center has more than twice the capacity of Keaney Gym, the Rams’ former home court, but fans generally like a new arena and Jim Baron has the Rams headed toward the postseason. New arenas are also bringing new excitement in places like Pittsburgh, Ohio State and Texas Tech.

“I think a new building makes a ton of difference, it creates a lot of energy,” Sarandis said. “New buildings generate a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm.”

College basketball is as exciting as ever this season, and those who have been to games have not been disappointed. March Madness is at our doorstep, and the competition is as wide open as it has ever been. The sport doesn’t have the household names it has had in the past, but the trade-off is that there are still good players everywhere and the games are that much more exciting.

If anyone is interested in tickets to the 2003 Choice Hotels International America East Tournament, call the Boston University ticket office at (617) 353-4628. Tickets are $40 for all quarterfinal and semifinal games, and $15 for youth 17 and under.


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