Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado had just taken care of business against their heated in-state rival from Colorado State, and CU men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle was eager to give credit where credit was due.
In this case, at the end of his postgame press conference on Dec. 1 following an 86-80 Buffaloes victory, Boyle wanted to thank the boisterous crowd that made their presence felt from a student section mostly vacant during the previous three home games.
“When you see our student section today, relative to the other three home games, anybody that was here those other three games knows the difference,” said Boyle, moments after taking the PA microphone to deliver a similar message to the students from the CU Events Center floor. “I want our students to understand that they make a big difference. They make a huge difference. We’re the University of Colorado Buffaloes. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Colorado State or South Dakota. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing South Dakota or Arizona. I want our fans, I want our students, to show up and cheer on the Buffs. Because that’s what high-level fans, high-level programs, do and they make a difference.”
Boyle was on the mark that day in one regard, though not in the manner intended. Whether it has been Colorado State, South Dakota, or even nationally-ranked foes like Arizona or Xavier, it hasn’t made a difference. Folks simply aren’t flocking to the Events Center to check out Boyle’s Buffs.
Going into the Buffs’ big challenge at home Saturday night against Washington, CU remained on track for the lowest attendance figures of Boyle’s nine-season tenure. It is the continuation of a downward trend that has been at work for several years, yet has cratered to new lows through the first seven home games of the 2018-19 season.
Since setting a program record for average attendance during the 2012-13 season (10,392), the attendance figures for men’s basketball have endured a slow decline, falling to an average of 7,449 last season. For some perspective, the average attendance in the 2009-10 season, the final pre-Boyle year, was 6,266. Yet so far this season attendance at the CU Events Center is dipping closer to the figures witnessed before Boyle led the Buffs to four NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons.
Last year, the smallest home crowd for a CU men’s basketball game was 6,385 against Cal. The Buffs topped that mark just twice through this season’s first seven home games (7,887 against Colorado State and 7,277 against Illinois-Chicago). Excluding the sparsely-attended game against Gardner-Webb in the CBI tournament at the end of the 2014-15 season, the attendance numbers for the first three home games this season — 5,695 against Drake; 5,720 against Omaha; and 5,550 against Portland — were the smallest at CU since early in the 2011-12 season.
The 6,184 that showed up for Thursday’s rout of Washington State was the smallest home crowd for a Pac-12 game since the Buffs joined the league in 2011-12. It was the smallest for any conference home game in almost nine years, going back to a Feb. 10, 2010 date against Oklahoma (5,976).
As usual, the lagging attendance this season can’t be attributed to one lone factor. Yet one common denominator, excluding perhaps the Colorado State game, has been the expansive swaths of empty seats dotting the student section.
“I know in talking to our marketing team, we’re really going to focus on getting students out,” CU athletic director Rick George said. “For us to put that many season tickets out for football, I’d like to see our students come out and support what we’re doing out there. Because we need them. They’re important. Having them at our contests makes a lot of sense. I know our marketing team is ramped up to get them out, but it’s not from a lack of them having tickets or knowing that there’s games. We just need to get the students to show up.”
Fans often cite the late tipoff times frequent in Pac-12 play as a turn off, like Saturday’s 8 p.m. start against Washington, but CU featured no such late starts during nonconference play. This year’s nonconference slate didn’t provide any “Wow” factor in terms of marquee opponents, yet that doesn’t explain the tepid attendance numbers when the Buffs upset No. 13-ranked Xavier two years ago (7,743), or No. 4 Arizona State last year (7,740). Season ticket sales also are down, with the 4,558 sold this season roughly 450 fewer than last year and a full 2,000 fewer than CU’s most recent NCAA Tournament season of 2015-16.
As far as the product on the floor, while the Buffs seemingly are on track to miss the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season, they nonetheless boast an intriguing young team with likeable personalities and, in the case of sophomore forward Tyler Bey, NBA potential. Plus, the Buffs tend to put on a good show at home — going into Saturday’s game CU was 7-0 at the Events Center with a home scoring average of 88 points per game.
“I’ve sensed a lack of momentum in our student section for a couple years now,” Boyle said. “But the one thing I feel good about is our community and season ticket holder base. Tip times always are an issue. And if you look at the trend of college athletics, not just Colorado basketball, the trend is downward in attendance. We’re not the only ones. But certainly we recognize it.
“My job is to put a team on the floor that is worthy of support. And if we’re not worthy of support, I don’t blame our fans for not coming. I think that’s the frustrating thing. You look at last year with our record (17-15) and that we didn’t play in the postseason, our fans I think were really encouraged by the young guys we had. The progress that we’re looking for this year has not yet happened, but I’ve coached long enough now to know it happens when you least expect it.”