I have been meaning to write a post about this for a while and the State Journal did a good piece today to prompt me into it. Here's the story.
It is painfully obvious to those of us that go to the games year after year that Badger basketball attendance keeps dropping. As the article states, the athletic department isn't hurting for cash as they still sell out most every game or get pretty close. The problem is those tickets aren't being used. There are several reasons people don't go to the games and they are mostly related to money.
The expansion of TV games because of the cash it brings in has impacted attendance. More TV games means that you can still enjoy watching the team all year without ever going to a game. When I was a kid there were few to no Badger games on TV. The radio was the only option for many games and the only TV was the rerun of home games on WI public television after midnight. As the sports entertainment industry has exploded, so has the availability of Badger games on TV, which is pretty awesome. The unfortunate consequence is the game day experience suffers to please the TV market.
The most obvious example of this is the start time of games. In order to get 2 games into prime time TV they have to start at 6 and 8pm. The 6pm starts are a pain in the ass for people like me who work and have to go screaming across town to get to the game after work. The 8pm games are a pain for people like my parents who are old and don't like staying out until 10pm for the end of the game, and then having to get out of the parking lot and drive home late at night.
The bigger issues here is that things have changed for UW sports in general and football and basketball in particular, and that change is success. After decades of being crappy to mediocre and seeing attendance wax and wane with wins and losses the Badgers have had about 20 straight years of spectacular success. I remember going to football games in the 80s against Iowa where it seemed like they had more fans in the stands the the Badgers. That all changed with the Barry Alvarez/Pat Richter regime that brought in the current golden era of UW sports. With that success UW's popularity boomed and games started selling out routinely.
The sellouts are great for UW's athletic department as they have a routine budget surplus to support the student athletes, pay the coaches, and improve the facilities which allow them to keep the success rolling. The problem is that they became so popular that season tickets started selling out and waiting lists formed, which means the only way to get a ticket is to have season tickets. The success pleases those fans who have been coming to games for years but it also draws in more casual fans who don't really care that much about the team as much as being a part of the event. It also brings in people who want to use the tickets for other things than watching the game, like for business. The more fans there are who don't care that much about the team the more empty seats there will be. Even those fans that really like the team are bound to have scheduling conflicts now and then, but since you have to buy a season ticket package to get tickets you can't just buy the games you want to go to, you have to buy them all.
The obvious counter to this is that there are many more options for ticket resale these days, from Stubhub to the UW ticket exchange, so casual fans could sell their tickets and the Kohl Center could still be full if there were enough fans who wanted to go. I think some people just don't bother to try to sell their unused tickets, but the bigger problem is that there just aren't enough buyers. Why is that? Badger fans have become spoiled. After 2 decades of success including 6 Rose Bowls, almost yearly bowl game appearances, a final 4 and tons of NCAA tourney appearances, there is an entire generation of Badger fans that expect success. They expect UW to win like a contender every year. They expect UW to schedule opponents the same way MSU does in basketball and OSU does in football. I hear the sentiment of the guy quoted in the article over and over from people:
"Rainey Briggs has held season tickets to University of Wisconsin men’s basketball games for the last six years. He hasn’t been to an exhibition or non-conference game in about five years even though they account for more than half of the home schedule. Why not? “They’re not playing anyone,” Briggs said, lamenting the quality of the opponents."
WI has had a great run and I sure hope it continues, but WI does not have the natural recruiting advantages of other top programs in either football or basketball where annual success should be an expectation. UW's success has been built on the backs of great coaches (Alvarez, Bennett, Ryan) and great management (Richter and Alvarez). There is no guarantee how long these people will be around, or that their successors will be able to repeat what they have done. The success they had initially created a bubble of demand for tickets which drove up prices and lead to the mass season ticket purchases. The continued success has created a spoiled fan base that only cares enough to show up for the biggest games and the best matchups.
I don't have a reasonable cure for this problem. UW is making tons of money so they have no reason to change, and good for them.
It just sucks to sit in a half empty stadium because the fan experience suffers. It's weird to me that the Kohl Center that seats over 17000 is rarely as loud as the field house was despite the much better team. It makes it all the more impressive that Bo Ryan's teams have been so good at home.
It seems as though I have become a curmudgeon at 36.