If you have attended a Bison men’s basketball game this year and last year, you have probably noticed considerably more green around, and it is not because NDSU fans are favoring the color over yellow. It’s the result of a palpable drop in attendance and a greater number of unoccupied seats.
Yes, the padded green seats brandishing embroidered Bison logos inside the Scheels Center at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex (SHAC) have been noticeably emptier in the 2017-18 campaign.
Quantifiably so, as a matter of fact.
Last season, the inaugural season for the glistening SHAC, the Bison recorded the 11th greatest increase in average attendance in the nation, adding 1,054 more fans per game than they did a season prior.
The Bison Sports Arena had a sparkling new replacement, and the future looked bright for NDSU. Students could once again walk to basketball games on campus, having previously needed to schlep over seven miles south to the Scheels Arena. Locals in the largely residential area surrounding campus had the same luxury. Boom times appeared to be on the horizon.
Except, it hasn’t quite played out that way.
The average attendance for the Bison’s 10 Division I home games this season has been 2,983. That figure represents a greater drop in average attendance than was gained in 2016-17. To make matters worse, the previous season drew five crowds over 4,000 and three over 5,000. By comparison, this year has only seen one audience eclipse 4,000, on Tuesday, Jan. 16 against North Dakota.
The product on the court has not done NDSU any favors with respect to putting fans in the stands. The Bison have played to a 7-5 record on the Fargo hardwood, their worst mark since head coach Dave Richman took the helm in 2014.
The departures of Carlin Dupree, Khy Kabellis and Dexter Werner can hardly account for the drop of quality on the court and the number of fans passing through the doors.
The seniors Dupree and Werner were longtime stars of the program who represented NDSU in March Madness play. The duo played, if not free of drama, compelling basketball during their time on campus, generating a great deal of interest in Bison hoops and shedding NDSU’s reputation as solely a football school.
Still, their absence has been filled by Paul Miller, who is assaulting the record books, scoring 20 plus points in nine consecutive games and ranking No. 9 in scoring in school history with 1,586 points.
Kabellis’ role as emerging talent has been played this season by Cameron Hunter, who has started in the past 13 games and has displayed flashes of brilliance.
All in all, while it has not always been winning basketball, the Bison’s play this year does not lack for entertainment value. Yet the historic performances and young talent cannot seem to draw as large of a crowd as last year.
Other factors have contributed to the dip in attendance as well. The scheduling for this season has been fairly unpredictable and inconsistent. The Summit League has Indiana Universty-Purdue University Indianapolis to thank for that. IUPUI bolted for the Horizon League on June 28 of last year, blindsiding the conference and narrowing the field to eight schools.
The conundrum IUPUI created could eventually result in Fort Wayne defecting, but that is a separate issue. In the immediate aftermath, the Bison and their seven opponents all found their schedules suddenly in flux.
NDSU only had one stretch of three straight home games this season, against Denver, Oral Roberts and North Dakota. While the same was true last year, the schedule lost its consistency and predictability.
Making matters worse is the fact that the Bison’s marquee conference home game against South Dakota State came on Jan. 3, a Wednesday over winter break. The attendance was NDSU’s fifth best of the season at 3,182, but it paled in comparison to the 4,805 who watched the Bison top the Jackrabbits 82-65 last year.
A win over SDSU on the home court could have given the Bison a serious lift in attendance for the conference schedule. Alas, the students were missing and Bison Nation was collectively making the drive down to Frisco at that point.
Student attendance has been particularly poor this season as well. The student body at NDSU is often a fickle bunch when it comes to their support of Bison athletics. Consistently leaving football games at halftime illustrates that the students can hardly be considered “the strength of the Herd.”
Jeff Kolpack, sports reporter for the Forum, took note of this on Twitter during the Bison’s Jan. 27 win over Western Illinois. “NDSU students have been pretty much a no-show at men’s basketball games this season. It’s ‘free’ to get in, right?,” Kolpack demurred.
Kolpack’s observation is one other attendees must be sharing as well. The section of seats devoted to NDSU’s students has by and large been barren all season long.
The exact reasons for this season’s drop in attendance are up for speculation, be it the product on the court, a confusing calendar or an absence of fan engagement. It has become evident though, that fans seem to be checked out on the Bison men’s basketball team this year.
One more meaningful game remains, Feb. 17 against Fort Wayne. It will be senior day, giving fans an opportunity to catch Jacobson and Miller playing live one last time.
The attendance on that Saturday ought to be telling and may signal to the athletic department that changes need to be made.