At long last, Friday night will mark the highly-anticipated official debut of the intriguing 2017 rookie class for the Colorado men's basketball team.
It has been said repeatedly since the end of the disappointing 2016-17 season that coach Tad Boyle's program is at a crossroads. Never in his previous seven seasons has Boyle been forced to utilize such a young roster. And while CU can still boast of four NCAA Tournament appearances over the past six seasons, the Buffs also have endured two seasons that fell short of expectations over the past three years.
The newcomers will be charged with reversing that recent trend. And, if successful, perhaps along the way they will be able to restore the buzz at the Coors Events Center.
Shortly into Boyle's tenure, attendance at CU games reached record-setting levels for a school not historically known as a basketball institution. That trend has slowly spiraled the other direction in recent seasons — even during the successful ones — and the hope among CU officials is the new cast of likeable youngsters, combined with fresh amenities like the arena's new center-hung video board, eventually gets the CEC rocking again.
"We want to get as many people in here as we can, because we want to create that atmosphere that we think is important for players and the basketball program," CU athletic director Rick George said. "We talked about trying to get our students here. That's important. That creates a great atmosphere. But also we want to grow attendance every year. The trend has gone down, and we've got to correct that."
When Boyle arrived before the 2010-11 season, the native son of Colorado sparked heightened interest in the Buffs' basketball program. Season ticket sales and overall attendance immediately spiked.
By the 2012-13 season, just after the Buffs claimed a stunning championship at the Pac-12 Conference tournament, the Coors Events Center hosted a basketball bonanza unlike anything previously witnessed at the university. That year CU set numerous attendance records, including sellouts (seven), games with attendance of at least 10,000 (12), total attendance (155,884), and average attendance (10,392).
The following season, which ended with an unprecedented third consecutive NCAA tourney berth, season-ticket sales passed the 7,000-mark for the first time at 7,160. With three additional home games the Buffs set a new standard for overall attendance (173,429), though the average attendance took a slight dip to 9,635.
When reaching a precipice like the attendance numbers of 2012-13 there is nowhere to go afterward but down. In what proved to be a disappointing 2014-15 campaign the season-ticket purchases topped out at 7,236, but the average attendance once again fell slightly to 9,135 (though, in fairness, if the sparsely-attended postseason game in the College Basketball Invitation is excluded from the equation, the average attendance in 2014-15 basically was equal to the previous year at 9,626).
The Buffs returned to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five seasons in 2015-16. The buzz in the CEC did not. CU sold 665 fewer season tickets, and the average attendance dropped to 8,540. That year's return to the tourney didn't rekindle season-ticket sales for the 2016-17 season, which dropped by another 502, while average attendance decreased again to 7,772.
Certainly the trend is something CU wants to reverse. Yet the figures still should be viewed through big-picture lenses. For instance, while last year's average attendance was the second-lowest of Boyle's seven full seasons, topping only the 7,014 mark from his first year, season ticket sales remained appreciably higher compared to the beginning of his tenure (2,686 in 2010-11 and 6,069 last year). Never mind how the average season attendance during the three-year run of Boyle's predecessor, Jeff Bzdelik, was just 5,451.
It is impossible to pinpoint one reason behind the recent increase of empty seats at the CEC. Instead a swarm of factors have contributed to the situation.
While season-ticket prices across all price tiers experienced a significant increase between 2012-13 and 2013-14, that didn't prevent overall season ticket sales to continue climbing through the 2014-15 season. The advent of late tipoff times in recent years certainly hasn't helped — the Buffs played two weekday home games last year that tipped off at 9 p.m. and another that started at 8 p.m. Yet while that may explain why kids were unable to see the eventual top two picks in the NBA draft, Washington's Markelle Fultz and UCLA's Lonzo Ball, who visited CU in two of those late starts (though Fultz was a late scratch due to injury), the late starts seemingly shouldn't be an issue for students. Nevertheless, large swaths of the student section remained empty for much of last season.
When it comes to scheduling, the Buffs may be a victim of their own success. Spots for the 68-team NCAA Tournament are hotly contested, with any unforeseen early-season stumble potentially costing teams come March. For teams harboring NCAA tourney hopes, a December visit at altitude in Boulder to take on what generally has been a competitive Buffs program under Boyle is a losing proposition. CU did bring nationally-ranked Xavier to the CEC in nonconference play last year, but that is not a program that creates a palpable buzz nationally.
Moreover, with many leagues expanding the number of games within conference play, scheduling traditional powers is becoming more problematic. The Big Ten is moving to a 20-game conference schedule next year, meaning one of the highlights of the Buffs' nonconference schedule this year (a neutral-court date against Iowa on Dec. 22) will be more difficult to repeat in the coming years.
CU has reached out to lapsed and current season ticket holders alike in ongoing efforts to curb the basketball attendance trend.
"We're calling them multiple times and emailing them, continuing to find ways to spark that interest and come back and be a season ticket holder," said Matt Biggers, CU's associate AD of external affairs and chief marketing officer. "Everybody has different reasons why (they don't renew), whether that's time commitment, team performance, game times, schedule. All those different things factor into it. There's not one thing where, 'Hey, if we just fix this, everyone will come back.' It all factors into it."
Reversing the trend
The Coors Events Center has undergone a slight facelift. Most prominently is the new video board that hangs over center court, adding expanded replay ability and other visual perks. The sound system and wireless internet capabilities also have been significantly upgraded in hopes of improving the fan experience.
In the end, though, it is the product on the court that matters most. The Buffs may struggle this year with their youthful roster, but potential future stars seemingly are in place among the freshman class. D'Shawn Schwartz and Dallas Walton are Colorado natives. McKinley Wright has the look of the sort of take-charge leader that typically is easy to gravitate toward. Tyler Bey already has wowed slim crowds at CU's scrimmages with his explosiveness around the rim. And though he is academically ineligible this year, Evan Battey has enough personality and charisma to carry a team for years.
"We've got a top-25 recruiting class on campus this year and these guys are going to be fun to watch, fun to see play, fun to watch grow," Boyle said. "It may be ugly early a little bit, but guess what? It's going to be a fun team to watch develop and get better as the year goes on. So from a fan standpoint, I would be excited to watch this team."
As of late Wednesday morning, CU had sold 5,034 season tickets for this year and 5,877 tickets for Friday night's opener against Northern Colorado (neither total reflects student tickets).