'We’d love to see people use their tickets': Sooners, like most of college hoops, struggle to draw fans
NORMAN — Lloyd Noble Center was a stunning sight Wednesday night.
The seats behind the baskets were virtually all empty for the OU-Iowa State basketball game. The seats in the corners contained scattered fans. Only the seats between the baselines were reasonably populated, and then only in the lower bowl.
The Sooners produced an old-school result — a 90-61 rout in which six players scored in double figures, like it was 1990. But the attendance was alarming: a school-estimated 4,240, with 8,235 tickets sold.
It might have been the smallest crowd for a conference game in 40 years.
Kenny Mossman didn’t sleep well Wednesday night, having just come from the game.
“Disappointed is probably the word that best describes it,” Mossman said. “I feel so bad for Lon (Kruger) and the players.”
Indeed, the Sooners, as usual, have a good team. OU is 16-8 overall, tied for fourth in the Big 12 and headed for its seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in eight seasons. Only Kansas, Villanova, Michigan State, North Carolina and Duke can trump that. A good team and a relatively fun team, for the low standards of college hoops. In Brady Manek and Kristian Doolittle, the Sooners have a couple of guys who can score and even are local guys (Harrah and Edmond).
“We’d love to see people use their tickets,” Kruger said. “They’re purchased. Now we just need ‘em to come. Fun group to watch, easy group to cheer for. Hopefully they’ll come out and have a good time.”
But this isn’t just an OU problem. The same fan apathy exists at OSU and Texas and much of the Big 12. I watched the Texas Tech-Texas game in Austin, and from the crowd reaction on a made shot you couldn’t tell which was the home team.
But this isn’t just a Big 12 problem. The same attendance concerns exist on most college campuses. Except for a handful of traditional powers and a few hot programs that weren’t drawing flies three years ago, college basketball doesn’t ignite the masses until March.
But this isn’t just a basketball problem. All through society, it’s getting more and more difficult to entice people to congregate. They want to shop and worship and be entertained and eat restaurant food from the comfort of their own homes and the addiction of their own digital devices.
It spreads to all ages. Students aren’t as engaged in high school activities as they once were. Families have hectic schedules; some of the prime clientele for a college basketball game are fathers and sons, except those sons might be playing youth games three nights a week.
There are a few exceptions. OU football, the Thunder, the casinos, still draw crowds. But even those enterprises market like crazy to keep people coming.
The Sooners still sell an impressive number of tickets to basketball. But many of those buyers are benefactors who seem to want to support the program so long as it means not having to show up for games.
“We sit down and discuss this far more than people realize, trying to come up with more approaches,” Mossman said.
Both OU and OSU have gone to great lengths to enhance the fan experience. The Sooners often have NBA-level halftime entertainment, students who purchased a season football ticket get in free to basketball and the marketing never ceases. Crazy enough, this was labeled Fan First Week at OU, with promotions across several sports. For basketball, a ticket to the West Virginia game last Saturday meant free admission to the Iowa State game.
Heck, in January, OU resurrected Top Daug as a basketball mascot, which is as close to nirvana as you can get under NCAA regulations, since Mookie Blaylock and Harvey Grant are out of eligibility.
Some fan complaints are valid — the 8 p.m. mid-week tipoffs are rough for anyone living outside Norman/south Oklahoma City.
But some fan complaints are all wet. Lloyd Noble is a solid venue. It’s not the world’s greatest basketball gym, but it’s comfortable enough, with easy access and abundant free parking.
College basketball in general suffers from a lack of marketable stars and a lack of scoring, but again, Kruger has largely produced against that tide. In the last four years, Buddy Hield and Trae Young have worn the crimson and cream.
Smaller venues probably is the long-term answer. OU engaged the city of Norman in talks for an 8,000-seat arena on the north side of town, but that idea lost traction. OSU officials long for the day when Gallagher-Iba Arena seated 6,381, not the 13,611 it seats today, when more than half the seats almost always are unfilled.
For now, fixing the sport so that we see more 90-point games and fewer 50-point games would help. So would working with ESPN to get a standard 7 p.m. tipoff time.
But changing a Grub Hub society that doesn’t want to congregate is out of OU’s control.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.