Rainey Briggs has held season tickets to University of Wisconsin men’s basketball games for the last six years.
He hasn’t been to an exhibition or non-conference game in about five years even though they account for more than half of the home schedule.
Why not? “They’re not playing anyone,” Briggs said, lamenting the quality of the opponents.
Nicole Haase bought season tickets for the Badgers women’s hockey team this season to go with a five-pack of tickets to men’s hockey games. She and her boyfriend used all the tickets to men’s games this season but got to “maybe four” of the 17 women’s home games.
They’ve driven from West Allis even when the weather isn’t great but Haase said they might not risk the travel for men’s games in the future.
“We feel we probably wouldn’t be missing much,” she said.
Here’s what is missing from games in the Badgers’ biggest sports: A quarter of the announced attendance never goes through the door.
The Badgers have announced attendances totaling more than 9 million for home games in the six major sports since the 2006-07 athletic season but there have been more than 2.3 million no-shows as part of that total, nearly 3,700 per game.
The average number of tickets used for men’s basketball, men’s hockey, women’s basketball and volleyball games have decreased in that time. Football and women’s hockey games have seen more tickets used per game in the current athletic season than six years ago.
The UW athletic department is aware of the attendance drop, but a bevy of factors — such as game times and dates and competing events — makes finding a definitive way of explaining it difficult.
“The fact of the matter is people have other ways of consuming games,” said Justin Doherty, UW’s associate athletic director for external relations. “You might be happy to sit at home and watch it on your big TV. You might be happy to be in your dorm room and just follow it on Twitter.
“There’s just a lot of ways to experience the games now, and I think it’s a goal of our department and a goal, I know, of the conference and I’m sure other pro sports and college sports, to make the in-person game experience as good as it can be for people so that people continue to want to come to your events.”
Like many college athletic departments, UW uses the number of tickets sold or distributed as that game’s attendance figure, regardless of how many people go through the venue’s doors.
The number of tickets scanned upon entering the venue represents the actual number of fans in the crowd.
Football, men’s basketball, men’s hockey, women’s basketball, women’s hockey and volleyball are the dominant spectator sports on the UW campus, generating 76 percent of the athletic department’s revenue in the 2011-12 season. Through an open records request, The Capital Times received data from the UW on the number of tickets scanned for each game in those sports.
Records go back to the 2006-07 season for all sports except volleyball, where data is available starting in the 2007-08 athletic season.
Some games had no data or partial data because of malfunctions or free admission; they were eliminated from calculations for this story and the accompanying online database.
Combining all the sports, average scanned attendance dropped 17 percent between 2007-08 (the first year with all six sports reporting) and 2011-12 (the most recent year with a full season of data).
In all six sports and all seven seasons, 25 percent of the announced attendance figure were no-shows. Men’s basketball (25 percent) and men’s hockey (26 percent) were right around that number while football (16 percent) was below it and women’s hockey (48 percent), women’s basketball (57 percent) and volleyball (58 percent) were well above it.
Games against conference rivals generally are bigger draws than non-conference contests, but even the best-attended games can have thousands of empty seats.
Home men’s basketball games six days apart against Michigan and Ohio State this season drew 15,545 and 14,116, respectively, while the announced crowds were 17,249, the current capacity at the Kohl Center.
The value of buying season tickets to Badgers fans, Doherty said, is often in knowing you’ll have a seat for the big games.
“Does it mean you go to every single game? We hope so,” Doherty said. “But I also understand that there’s other circumstances at play that people may not be able to get to every game.”
Smaller crowds can take a bite out of concession and merchandise sales, Doherty said, but the department still gets revenue from the sale of the ticket even if it isn’t used.
Football has a smaller percentage of absences than the other sports but they account for nearly 600,000 no-shows — an average of 12,733 per game — over the last seven seasons.
Of 47 home games with scanner data in that time (two had errors), 36 had more than 10,000 no-shows on an average announced attendance of 80,594.
The team’s success did not seem to be much of a factor. The two seasons with the most unused tickets were 2006, when the Badgers were 12-1, and 2008.
That 2008 team finished a 6-6 regular season with a November late-afternoon game against Cal Poly, a school that plays at the lower Football Championship Subdivision level. The scanned attendance was 50,921, nearly 30,000 short of the 80,709 announced figure.
Outside factors appear to have some impact on attendance shortfalls.
A men’s basketball game against Nebraska in January 2012 drew only 8,612, barely half of the announced attendance. It started 90 minutes after kickoff of a Green Bay Packers playoff game.
When the men’s hockey team hosted St. Cloud State on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2007, only 6,276 showed up on an announced crowd of 14,848. Snow and ice made travel hazardous that day.
Factors that can be controlled, however, also have contributed to the number of no-shows.
Briggs, a Sun Prairie resident, had five tickets to the Badgers men’s basketball game against Nebraska on Feb. 26 but gave them away because of the 8 p.m. start time dictated by a Big Ten Network broadcast.
“It’s had a huge impact on the games that I attend,” Briggs said. “I would go or my wife would go, but then we have to get a sitter. It’s a give and take a little bit but I definitely think looking at the later start times, it really challenges families that like to take their kids out to games.”
Men’s basketball ticket usage has been on a downward trend, with only 70 percent of tickets being used for this season’s games through Feb. 17, compared to 80 percent in the 2006-07 season.
Wisconsin isn’t alone in that regard, said Jim Bryce, a partner at Milwaukee-based ticket broker Ticket King.
“That’s a big-time trend going all over college basketball, all over the country right now,” Bryce said.
Diminishing results could be at play as well, particularly with the Badgers men’s hockey team.
With the exception of 2009-10, when the Badgers drew an announced crowd of 55,031 (47,563 actual attendance) to a game at Camp Randall Stadium, both announced and scanned averages have declined every year since 2006-07.
The average actual attendance of 8,429 this season through Feb. 15 was 25 percent off the figure from six years earlier.
In the last six seasons, the Badgers, with six NCAA championships (fourth all-time), have made the NCAA tournament only twice.
Wisconsin has led the nation in average announced attendance for men’s hockey each season since it moved into the Kohl Center in 1998-99 but it is likely to lose that crown to North Dakota this season.
Haase, who described herself being as hardcore a Badgers hockey fan as you can be from the Milwaukee area, said the on-ice product hasn’t been great.
Nor has the atmosphere with smaller crowds, she said.
“You can feel the difference,” Haase said. “Nobody stands up anymore. We’re literally the only people that stand up and cheer, do the dances at period break.”
With fan engagement in mind, the athletic department and the Big Ten Conference are focusing on improving the in-person experience, Doherty said, from the parking lot to the timeout and intermission entertainment.
“Just like you’ve got to keep up with the facility, you’ve also got to keep up with what’s available to people in those facilities,” Doherty said. “That’s just the way the industry has evolved.” n