Empty Seats Lose Games – Why Attendance Is An Issue

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Winning cures all ills.

It’s cliché, it’s belief, and it’s a lot of truth. If Drexel Men’s Basketball were to win it would be simpler to get fans into seats, to charge more admission, to find donors that can help bring in new lighting, to hire charter jets, or add to the recruiting budget.  Drexel spent a good deal of money to buy out Bruiser Flint’s contract, to get a search committee to find Zach Spiker, and to subsequently hire Coach Spiker.  The school is willing to invest, to an extent, in winning.  If we make that a base premise, it’s then fair to follow-up.

The follow-up question that was asked to numerous people inside and outside of the DAC, was this: “If the team had a packed DAC at tip off of the Senior Day game against UNCW, do they start quite that slow?  Would it have been worth the 2 additional points that could have helped win this game?”  The answer was always either “Yes”, “Maybe”, or “I don’t know”.  It was never “No”.  Zach Spiker talks at length about trying to gain every advantage, and on that day, his marketing team and his fans didn’t give him that advantage, and a win there was the difference between a first round bye in the CAA tournament and going without.  No team has ever won the tournament without that bye.  Those two points emphasize just how razor thin the difference between winning and losing is.  That the fans could have made a difference isn’t just the opinion of those spoken to, there’s science as well.  A 2010 piece in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports concludes:

We find a significant positive effect of attendance on score differential, likelihood of a home win and almost all other major offensive categories. Likewise, we find a significant negative effect of attendance on home team ERA, indicating that higher attendance causes home pitchers to have greater success. Because we were unable to find supporting evidence for an attendance effect on umpire bias, we conclude that attendance increases home win percentage via increased home team performance (or diminished away team performance). We find that for a 38% increase in attendance (i.e. an increase in attendance from 40% of stadium capacity to 78% of stadium capacity) we should expect the home team to score one additional run. Baseball teams rarely experience swings in attendance this large, however it is important to remember that a single run in baseball is tremendously meaningful—in 2006, MLB teams averaged 4.86 runs per game, so adding an additional run represents a 20.6% increase in scoring.

Earlier in the paper, they speak towards home field advantage and note that:

The effect is greatest for indoor sports like ice hockey and basketball and somewhat smaller for outdoor sports like baseball and football.

Drexel Athletics has a number of headways in bringing fans into the building.  Due to the level in which the on-court performance was allowed to fall, they are climbing out of a performance hole much deeper than just mediocrity.  Generally, fans have shown that when the teams play on both Thursday’s and Saturday’s in one week that they are not likely to go to both – perhaps due to the quick turnaround, which is mandated by the CAA.  The league TV contract is nothing short of a disaster and Drexel doesn’t seem to want to travel down the path that the University of Delaware did by paying to put games onto TV to create interest.  Lack of attendance goes beyond these local issues to a broader national issue, as this study pointed out to us by Ryan Koechig shows.

Then there is this:  Will winning actually cure all ills?  Following back-to-back 3-15 seasons, the first under Coach Flint, the program seems to have taken a step forward as it battled through injuries to a 6-12 record.  It seems a totally reasonable second step in the rebuilding process.  Unfortunately, while the team is rebuilding, the base of supporters has continued to drop at an alarming rate.  The win/loss record improved, but the fanbase is showing up at its lowest rate in a quarter of a century rather than responding with the team.  At Drexel’s most similar foe, “sister school” Northeastern University, the Huskies just split the conference crown, but they had the second lowest attendance in the conference.  Perhaps this is an anomaly specific to them, and a fanbase that can go to hockey games rather than basketball, but perhaps indicative of a growing culture of non-attendance.

At Drexel this season, the numbers were ugly:  the school finished with 925 fans per game filing into the DAC for CAA games (we’re using CAA games as they face the same or similar schedule year over over).  Within the Association, it’s the lowest turnout for any team in the last decade.  That is a total of 108 seasons by CAA teams, and Drexel just had the lowest attendance of the lot.  This wasn’t hard to see coming:  This is the fourth straight year that the Dragons have been last in league attendance.

For those that don’t like comparing to CAA schools, this season’s total attendance came in at 989 per game, which is the first time since Malik Rose stepped foot on campus that the DAC saw under 1,000 guests for men’s basketball games.  So while there are a number of headwinds for the department, these staggering numbers point to a much larger problem here at Drexel.  And it’s a problem that they are aware of.  The Athletic Department went on record saying: “We are disappointed in the attendance this year”.  Speaking with just about any member of the department will show you the face of frustration as they look for answers.

Some answers though, seem so simple to those that aren’t in the DAC’s echo chamber.  When standing at the corner of 33rd and Market one hour before tip-off of the Drexel-Delaware rivalry game one could complete a three hundred and sixty degree turn.  And they wouldn’t have any idea that a basketball game was about to be played in the gym across the intersection, much less a rivalry game.  The University’s main Twitter account only mentioned a basketball game prior to it being played once in 2018.  When fans are met outside the gym, it’s by security, not Athletics personnel.  All of these are extremely inexpensive to fix, yet haven’t been addressed by an Athletics Department that has, it appears, been concerned about attendance for some time now.  More expensive options that would draw attention to the back side of the DAC (the entrance for games) or get TV exposure are worthy of discussion and should be discussed, but it’s the low hanging fruit that was missed that seems to lead to much immediate frustration.

That’s not to say Athletics hasn’t been trying to fight these headwinds.  The DAC is now a much more hospitable place to watch a game and largely unrecognizable to those whom haven’t been back in the last few years.  They offered free tickets the day of the Eagle’s parade – results show that this was perhaps not the correct promotion, but it was an effort.  The in-game experience is reviewed constantly from the music to the script to personnel positioning.  The current staff is working on this, but they are also glaringly missing the pitches mentioned above and it’s affecting the behavior of those that remain.  “I’m embarrassed to bring guests to the DAC” said one season ticket holder.

Coach Spiker is looking for every knot of wind that he can get at his back.  What he received from Drexel – The University, The Alumni, and the Athletics Department as it relates to fan support was disappointing.  That feeling appears to be universal, and those involved are quick to note the headwinds listed above.

There is little to no appetite to address the elephant in the room.  A very similar group is addressing the same issue for the fourth straight year, with the headwinds seemingly unchanged.  This is ultimately a results-based business, which makes that dubious.  It’s hard to imagine that being allowed in the private sector, which seems incredible since the University President is also Chairman of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

What will make the response this offseason different than the three prior years?  Why should Coach Spiker have confidence that this year was the bottom for fan support and that the rebound is about to begin?  His team is scratching and clawing and has shown positive results.  It’s only right that the other areas of Athletics show similar results to support him and his efforts.  They’re all pieces to the winning puzzle that everyone, the school, the program, the players and their fans, want to be a part of.

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1 Comment

  1. Obviously I am from afar now, but I can’t believe game day signs etc are no longer being used. As recent as 2012 for sure every single time the men or women played there were in the very least signs all over campus (specifically the dining hall) and around the DAC saying “game today”. Not giving people information is a bad excuse. It is a hard sell to get butts in seats, but from this article it sounds like we are not even trying any more, which is disappointing.

    Advertising is always key. You have to use social media in this day and age to get the word out. Almost all venues that host any event have signs or video boards stating what event is going on with the time and date. Not sure why we would think we are above simple things to get the word out.

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