Inside The Numbers: Tumbleweeds in Cassell
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #8

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Virginia Tech was a basketball school.

Yes, it sounds hard to believe, but in the past, the popularity of men's basketball at Virginia Tech arguably exceeded the popularity of football, and in many years, there actually wasn't any argument to be made: basketball was king.

Those whose memories of Virginia Tech basketball don't go further back than ten years find that hard to believe. Men's basketball at Tech is a non-factor to a Hokie fan who hasn't followed Virginia Tech sports for more than a decade. It has been a decade-plus exercise in futility interrupted only by the Ace-Custis led teams of the mid-90's who won a 1995 NIT championship and made an appearance in the NCAA's in 1996.

The growing disinterest in men's basketball at Virginia Tech is reflected in attendance, or lack thereof. As a rule, after peaking in the late 80's, attendance has been on a steady decline, a downward spiral that was slowed for three brief seasons by the mid-90's NIT champions mentioned above.

This decline in attendance has dire financial consequences. As detailed in this month's article "The Money-Makers, Part 3: Basketball," the Hokies lost over $414,000 on men's basketball in 1998-99, and over $650,000 in 1999-2000. Tech is one of just a handful of teams in the "Big Six" conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big 10, PAC 10, and SEC), the Atlantic 10, and Conference USA that did not make money off of men's basketball.

As part of the agreement to enter the Big East in July of 2000, the Hokies will not share in Big East basketball revenue for the first five seasons of membership in the league. With one year under their belts, this means that for another four years, Virginia Tech will not partake of their portion of Big East revenue-sharing, which would have been in the neighborhood of $1.3 million per year. Multiply that figure by five years, and that's approximately $6.5 million that will not flow into Tech's athletic coffers.

The primary way for Tech to make up this lost revenue is through ticket sales. The problem is that with attendance on the decline for most of the last decade, Tech's ticket sales are hitting bottom, not rising. And because of the slack demand for tickets, prices have held steady at $10 for years. Compare that with Syracuse, which charges $19 per ticket for a Big East Conference game -- despite having a healthy supply of 32,000 seats for basketball in the Carrier Dome -- and UConn, which not only charges $25 per ticket, but even charges students $5 a seat (student tickets at Tech are free).

Virginia Tech has averaged about 4,200 fans per game for the last three years, and at $10 a ticket, that's only $42,000 per game in ticket revenue. At Syracuse, where they average crowds of 19,282 in the Carrier Dome (source: Big East web site), a $19 ticket price will bring revenue of $366,358 per Big East game, almost nine times what the Hokies make. UConn averaged crowds of 12,769, and if the average ticket price is $20, that's $255,380 per game.

Tech's sparse attendance was 4,508 per game for the 2000-2001 season, 13th in the 14-team Big East. Only Miami, a bastion of poor support for men's basketball, was worse, averaging just 2,898 fans per game.

The Hokies' low attendance is a double-edged sword. Not only does it bring in paltry gate receipts, but it prevents the raising of ticket prices. Virginia Tech basketball is stuck in a rut of low attendance and low ticket revenue.

But this article is not meant to be a study of how much money the Hokies make (or don't make) from basketball. It is meant to be a study of the history and trends of VT basketball attendance.

A Once-Feared Venue Stands Quiet

Cassell Coliseum, whose claustrophobic atmosphere and steeply banked rows of seats once made it one of the most feared venues in college basketball, is a toothless tiger these days, a cavernous collection of empty seats smattered with a few thousand fans.

With the exception of a few Big East games that drew around 6,000 fans and produced some good noise (one characteristic of Cassell Coliseum is that any crowd over about 4,000 can be pretty loud), Cassell is just a pale imitation of its former self in terms of atmosphere and noise.

Only the diehards and the true fans of Virginia Tech basketball remain these days. They know that they're watching Virginia Tech basketball at its lowest point, and they await the days that Big East membership brings the fans -- and the excitement -- back to "the Cassell."

Those days may come, but for now, attendance is the lowest it has ever been. It bottomed out in 1998-99 (4,040 fans per game) and 1999-2000 (4,042), bouncing back slightly in 2000-2001 (4,508) when the Hokies entered the Big East. There are many reasons why attendance has gotten so sparse, and I'll touch upon those later, but for now, let's take a look inside the numbers.

Attendance figures for the 40-year history of Cassell Coliseum, from the time it opened in the 1961-62 season to the present, are published each year in the men's basketball media guide. The data isn't presented as per-game attendance, but rather, as total attendance, along with the home won-loss record for that year. So you have to add the won-loss record up and divide the total attendance by that number to get per-game attendance. It takes a little time to set up a spreadsheet, but once you do that, you can manipulate the data however you want.

Surprisingly, the year-by-year average attendance figure jumps and spikes almost to the point of making a graph look like noise. From the time Cassell Coliseum opened to the present, the graph of average per-game attendance moves back and forth from the mid-5000's to nearly 9,000 for all of Cassell's first three decades. Average attendance doesn't drop below 5,000 until the 1990's and 2000's, when it does so six times: 1992, 1993, 1997, 1999, 2000, and 2001.

Since there are 40 years of attendance figures, I won't pass them all on to you in the body of this article, but at the end, I will give you a link to the data in an Excel spreadsheet.

And in looking at the data, I struggled a little bit with how to present it in an easily digestible format. Talking about all forty years would no doubt make your eyes glaze over, so I thought I would just point out some trends and what I'll call some "macro numbers."

In the following data, the "Season" column indicates the year that a basketball season ended. So if I give you a figure for 1967, for example, I'm talking about the 1966-67 basketball season.

Ave. Attend.

# of Times

Seasons

8,000-9,000

7

74, 75, 80, 85, 86, 88, 96

7,000-7,999

11

63, 67, 71, 73, 76, 77, 79
82, 84, 89, 90

6,000-6,999

12

62, 64, 65, 66, 68, 69, 70
78, 81, 83, 94, 95

5,000-5,999

4

72, 87, 91, 98

4,000-4,999

6

92, 93, 97, 99, 2000, 2001

If that's too much to look at all at once, just look at the top row and the bottom two rows. They point out what those of us who follow Tech men's basketball know intuitively: the highest attendance was in the 80's, and the lowest was in the 90's and 2000's.

Here's another way to look at the data: the following table shows how many seasons from each decade fell into certain ranges of average attendance.

Decade

Number of Seasons w/Attendance Between

4k-5k

5k-6k

6k-7k

7k-8k

8k-9k

1962-1969

-

-

6

2

-

1970-79

-

1

2

5

2

1980-89

-

1

2

3

4

1990-2001

6

2

2

1

1

Looking at this table shows how remarkably consistent the 60's and 70's were, how strong the 80's were and how weak the 1990's/2000's were. For the first 28 years of Cassell Coliseum's existence, average attendance dipped below 6,000 just twice. Since then, in the last 12 seasons, it has gone below 6,000 eight times. The 12 seasons of the 1990's/2000's have registered the 7 lowest-rated seasons in terms of average attendance. Ouch.

And here's one more look at the data by decade.

Decade

Ave. Attendance

% Change

1962-1969

6594

--

1970-79

7352

+11.5%

1980-89

7615

+3.6%

1990-2001

5455

-28.4%

That makes it pretty clear that attendance is on a serious decline. After steadily rising from the 60's through the 80's, attendance plummeted 28% from the 1980's to the 1990's/2000's.

Trends in Attendance

1.) Winning Helps, Losing Hurts

Let's take a look at that first table again:

Ave. Attend.

# of Times

Seasons

8,000-9,000

7

74, 75, 80, 85, 86, 88, 96

7,000-7,999

11

63, 67, 71, 73, 76, 77, 79
82, 84, 89, 90

6,000-6,999

12

62, 64, 65, 66, 68, 69, 70
78, 81, 83, 94, 95

5,000-5,999

4

72, 87, 91, 98

4,000-4,999

6

92, 93, 97, 99, 2000, 2001

Note the top row. Attendance was high in 1974 and 1975, the years following the 1973 NIT championship. It went up again in 1980, the first year after Tech's 1979 Metro Conference Tournament Victory and NCAA appearance. It was high during 1985, 1986, and 1988, when the Hokies went a combined 61-28 and featured Dell Curry (85 and 86)and Bimbo Coles (88) in their heydays. Lastly, attendance was high in 1996, the year after Tech's 1995 NIT victory and the year of their last NCAA tourney appearance.

On the other hand, the ten lowest-attended seasons had a combined record of 121-162. Only two of those ten seasons had winning records: in 1972, the Hokies went 16-10, and in 2000, they were 16-15.

2.) Star Power Aids the Cause

It is no secret that having a star player brings in the crowds. Bimbo Coles and Dell Curry are numbers 1 and 2 in career scoring at Virginia Tech, and oh-by-the-way, they could electrify a crowd like no one to ever put on a Hokie uniform.

Tech has had other great players: Dale Solomon, Ace Custis, Allan Bristow, and other greats that I never saw play and can't vouch for. But Curry, with his long-ball ability, and Coles, with his relentless drive to the hoop, were the best, both in production and in style.

Curry and Coles brought in the most fans. From the 1983 season through the 1986 season, Curry ruled the roost, and from 1987 to 1990, it was Coles. Not coincidentally, 6 of those 8 seasons are ranked among the top 16 in attendance overall. Curry's freshman season (1983) and Coles's freshman season (1987) are the only two seasons that didn't bring in average attendance over 7,000 per game.

3.) A Good Conference Boosts Attendance

After the 1965 season, the Hokies exited the Southern Conference, and they did not join a basketball conference again until the 1979 season, their inaugural season in the Metro Conference. After the Metro summarily booted the Hokies after the 1995 season, Tech switched to the Atlantic-10 from 1996-2000.

For the Hokies, the glory days of the Metro Conference were from 1979 to about 1990, when the conference started to fall apart. During the decade of the 80's, Louisville (the Evil Empire) and Memphis State (back before they dropped the "State" from their name) were Top 10 fixtures, and Tulane, Florida State, and Southern Mississippi fielded excellent teams at various times. Names like LaBradford Smith, Pervis Ellison, Keith Lee, William Bedford, Alton Lee Gipson, John "Hot Rod" Williams, and Pee Wee Barbour among others, made Hokie fans quake with fear. (I may have gotten some of those spellings wrong, by the way, but I remember the fear clearly.)

That stretch from 1979 to 1990 encompassed 12 seasons, and 9 of those 12 seasons fall into the top 18 seasons for average attendance of all time. Only the 1981, 1983, and 1987 seasons failed to average over 7,000 fans per game during those 12 seasons.

More Hard Times Ahead?

Things did not get much better this past season, despite Tech's entry into the Big East for basketball. After five games, the Hokies were averaging just 4,060 fans per game, despite a reported attendance of 10,052 - a capacity crowd - for the UVa game. If you take away the UVa game, the average attendance plummets to 2,562 fans per game for the first five games. Ugh.

Once the Big East schedule kicked in, attendance picked up, and Tech was able to average 4,508 fans per game for the year, despite going 8-19, including a 6-9 home record that was the first losing record in Cassell Coliseum's 40-year history.

And the dirty truth is that the reported attendance is higher than the actual attendance, and in some cases, much higher. This is because reported attendance is based on tickets sold, not on a count of fans coming through the door. Anyone who went to the UVa game this season knows that there were only about 8,000 fans there, tops, and that's being generous. There were a lot of empty seats in Cassell that night, despite the fact that the game was sold out.

During the 1996 season, when the Hokies averaged a fifth-best 8,358 fans per game, the true packed houses were few and far between. I remember watching Bill Foster on TV one night, talking to a reporter during the post-game interviews and saying, "I keep hearing about how loud this place is when it's full. I'm still waiting to see it full." Then he glared directly at the camera. "I mean, really full." The Hokies recorded only two home sellouts during that 22-4 regular season --UMass and Xavier. And only one, the UMass game, was truly full.

Most casual fans perceive the Tech men's basketball program (if they pause to think about it at all) as hopelessly floundering. Player defections, mounting losses, and fan apathy have taken their toll, and just when you think it can't get any worse, it takes another bad turn.

There's nowhere to go from here but up. And for those of us who remember what Cassell Coliseum was like when it was full -- really full -- we can't wait to get there.

The Data

To see the attendance data for Cassell Coliseum that was used to write this article, you can either view it as a web page or download it as a Microsoft Excel 97 file.

Web Page link:

http://www.techsideline.com/tslextra/issue008/cassellattendance.htm

MS Excel File (Excel 97 compatible):

http://www.techsideline.com/tslextra/issue008/cassellattendance.xls

(Right-click the link and do a "Save Link As" or "Save Target As" to save the Excel file to disk.)

 

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