It was one little line buried at the bottom of the University of Wisconsin men's basketball box score, but it stood out even more than Jordan Taylor's 10 assists or UW-Green Bay's 32.1 percent shooting.
It had been 143 games, dating back to 2003, since the attendance total at a Badgers home game was anything but 17,230, which is the Kohl Center's official capacity for basketball.
Dismissing 154 empty seats would be easy except for two things: The Badgers drew another not-quite-capacity crowd (17,123) in their next game against UNLV and the attendance dip, however slight, makes men's basketball the third of UW's three revenue-producing sports to experience a loss of support at the box office this year.
Before we discuss why that is, a little perspective would be good. UW ranks in the top 20 nationally in attendance for football, men's basketball and men's hockey, so this isn't a dire situation at this point. But while there is no need for panic at 1440 Monroe St., there should be someone asking why this is happening because clearly there is some erosion of support for UW's highest-profile teams.
Despite a Big Ten Conference title, an 11-win season and a record-setting offense, the football team drew fewer than 80,000 fans for three of its seven home games. That happened twice each in 2009 and 2010. Before that, it hadn't happened since the Camp Randall Stadium renovation was completed in 2004.
Even though actual attendance at some non-conference basketball games has been spotty, the Badgers still managed to sell all the tickets. Now, UW is working on a streak of two non-sellouts going into games with Savannah State and Mississippi Valley State even though it has been ranked in the top 15 in the national polls all season.
Meanwhile, UW hockey, an attendance superstar for 40 years, has experienced a dramatic drop in ticket sales. Over the previous six seasons, the Badgers averaged a high of 15,048 and a low of 13,226 tickets sold. This year's average is 11,175 even though rivals such as North Dakota, Minnesota and national champion Minnesota-Duluth have already come to Madison. UW has had at least two crowds of 15,000-plus for eight straight seasons, but this season's best was 13,149. With UW mired in 10th place in the WCHA and only Denver as a major draw in the final four home series, it's not likely to improve much in the second semester, either.
So what in the name of Don Morton is going on here?
Here are four reasons for UW's sagging attendance:
• The poor economy has caused people to change their spending habits. Fans are being more selective with their discretionary income.
• Fans are tired of UW finding new ways to get into their wallets every year. Whether it's price hikes for tickets and parking, being forced to pay for the right to buy tickets or parking, or increases in the "donations" for premium seating, fans are feeling squeezed by the athletic department and they're losing their patience. The latest money grab is a proposal to charge extra for marquee football games such as Ohio State and Michigan State that likely will go into effect next year. And there are other things in the discussion stage that will turn off fans even more.
• Fans are ticked off about the quality of non-conference opponents they have to pay for as part of the season-ticket packages. In all sports, non-conference scheduling has mostly gone for the cheap dollar instead of competitive matchups. Too many Woffords and Austin Peays in football, too many Kennesaw States and Colgates in basketball, too many Mercyhursts and RITs in hockey have caused fans to be apathetic at games, simply avoid games or even stop buying season tickets altogether.
• Fans are weary of being jacked around by television and other concerns when it comes to dates and starting times. Indeed, it seems like games are scheduled with everyone in mind except the ticket-holder, which disrupts peoples' routines and makes it hard for them to get to some events. There are even conflicts for fans who have tickets in more than one sport. This fall, there was a football game and a basketball game on the same day and a football game and a hockey game on the same day. No matter what time they start, it's asking a lot of people to make both.
Whatever the reason, UW is finding it harder to sell tickets. And while there's nothing UW can do about the economy, athletic department officials would be wise to start treating the paying customers with more respect because, ultimately, they're the ones carrying the wallets.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.