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Mike Lopresti | | May 26, 2023

10 lessons learned in this year's men's basketball attendance numbers

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Oh, the stories that numbers can tell. We have here the final attendance figures for men's college basketball last season, with 10 tales from the list.

The North Carolina Tar Heels might have missed the NCAA tournament, barely kept their heads above .500 water in the ACC and sometimes struggled so they should have turned Dean Smith's picture to the wall, but nobody could beat them at the turnstiles. They led the nation with their 19,890 average, the gate likely boosted by all the lavish preseason expectations. So North Carolina began the season No. 1 in the rankings and finished No. 1 in attendance. The Tar Heels no doubt would have preferred that be the other way around. No one cuts down nets when they win the attendance race.

The top of the attendance standings had been a two-team monopoly, with either Kentucky or Syracuse leading the nation every season since 1976 — Kentucky 29 times, Syracuse 16. Such has been the eternal drawing power of Big Blue Nation in Rupp Arena, and the Jim Boeheim era in a dome. But Kentucky dropped to No. 2 this season and Syracuse to No. 3. The irony is none of the top three teams in attendance had many satisfied customers. They combined for 40 losses and only Kentucky made it to the NCAA tournament, then didn’t get past the first week.

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You don’t need to be a giant at the gate to thrive in March. Consider the Final Four. San Diego State was 25th in the nation in attendance, UConn 30th, Miami 84th and Florida Atlantic 179th. The Owls’ average crowd of 2,238 might not seem like much, but it was 1,400 the year before. Another March sensation, Fairleigh Dickinson, was 340th in attendance averaging 693. The Knights’ total draw for their 15-game home season was 10,402 fans. The No. 1 seed they famously evicted from the first round, Purdue, averaged 14,876 a game.

All the Cinderella coverage from 2022 didn’t boost the following season’s gate for Saint Peter’s, where the average crowd of 573 was 352nd out of 363 programs. Nor did star power always pack them in. Antoine Davis’ climb to No. 2 on the NCAA all-time scoring list drew only 1,772 a game at Detroit Mercy, barely 21 percent of capacity.

News flash: They like their college basketball in the Big Ten footprint. The league put 10 teams in the top 28 in attendance, led by Indiana at No. 8. Purdue was two spots lower, the first time the Boilermakers had cracked the top-10 in 40 years. The masses were enthralled by Zach Edey and company. How could they have known how it would end?

Sometimes attendance numbers can lie, or at least fib. Louisville’s season was an unfathomable nightmare, with a final record of 4-28. But the tickets were already sold before the walls caved in. Louisville might have finished 15th and last in the ACC and 314th in the NET ratings but was 23rd in the nation in official attendance with a reported average of 12,497. How many of those ticket holders actually showed up would be another question.

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The Pac-12 is no basketball attendance powerhouse. Arizona was the only league member in the top 46 schools. Ranking the 76 teams from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, the last four programs in attendance were all Pac-12 brethren — Oregon State, Stanford, Washington State and California.

Dayton has one of the nation’s most ardent fan bases. The Flyers were one of only eight programs to sell out every game and were 18th in average, crowding in among the marquee names from the power leagues.

The monster home sellout streaks — non-COVID — kept rolling. It’s now 506 in a row for Duke, going back to 1990. Kansas is next at 352, which started in 2001. Gonzaga has sold out all 282 home games since the McCarthey Athletic Center opened in 2004. Duke and Gonzaga play in cozy confines which is why, sellout streaks or not, they’re 45th and 76th in the nation in attendance. Put their averages together and you would still have fewer in the stands than Kansas.

The wide variety of what Division I programs look like is as vivid in the attendance numbers as anywhere. Thirty-seven teams averaged crowds of at least 10,000 last season. But 169 were under 2,000. Often, that didn't mean much when the ball went up.

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