This week the NCAA released the attendance figures for the 2010-11 college basketball season, which offer few surprises at the top: the six largest arenas in the nation belong to Syracuse, Kentucky, BYU, Louisville, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and that's exactly who you'll find in the top six spots in attendance. Those six arenas are the only non-NBA basketball facilities that seat over 20,000 in the country, which means you can expect to find those six teams at or near the top of the attendance chart every season, depending on exactly how good the basketball is. For instance, even when Tennessee's attendance average dipped to 12,225 in Buzz Peterson's final season - the lowest average in the history of Thompson-Boling Arena - the Vols could still say they were 20th in the nation in attendance (under Bruce Pearl, Tennessee has been fourth or fifth every season). Even bad basketball in a big building will still draw relatively well.
This is why capacity percentages are a much better indicator of both the health of a program and the passion of its fans. 12,225 may have been 20th nationally in attendance, but the building was just over half-full (and you can color all of this with, "If you believe the numbers."). Likewise, while each of the twelve SEC schools are in the Top 100 in attendance this year and seven are in the Top 50 - giving the SEC the third highest attendance totals as a conference - the capacity percentages tell a very different story. As you'll see, most of the league teams that play in smaller arenas still did a poor job filling them up.
Duke may be 48th nationally in attendance, but that doesn't make Cameron the 48th most difficult place to play in the country. When a building is full or close to it, regardless of its overall size, an athletic department is happy and the basketball is usually good.
So when we take a look at the SEC's numbers, we find more of the same: the Eastern Division flat out dominates the basketball landscape in this conference. It's not just the huge arenas in Lexington and Knoxville. It's good basketball throughout most of the division, and bad basketball and/or apathetic fans out West.
After the jump, we'll take a look at the SEC's overall attendance numbers, and their capacity percentages.
Here are the overall attendance numbers for the SEC, with national rankings:
- Kentucky - 23,603 (1)
- Tennessee - 18,952 (5)
- Vanderbilt - 13,802 (18)
- Arkansas - 11,884 (29)
- Alabama - 10,983 (35)
- South Carolina - 10,427 (41)
- Florida - 10,186 (42)
- Georgia - 8,250 (60)
- LSU - 7,153 (74)
- Ole Miss - 6,360 (82)
- Auburn - 6,324 (83)
- Mississippi State - 5,710 (94)
Now, here's how they line up with capacity percentages:
- Kentucky - 23,603 attendance - 23,000 capacity - 102.6% (cheaters)
- Vanderbilt - 13,802 attendance - 14,316 capacity - 96.4%
- Tennessee - 18,952 attendance - 21,000 capacity - 90.2%
- Florida - 10,186 attendance - 12,000 capacity - 84.8%
- Georgia - 8,250 attendance - 10,523 capacity - 78.3%
- Alabama - 10,983 attendance - 15,316 capacity - 71.7%
- Ole Miss - 6,360 attendance - 9,061 capacity - 70.1%
- Auburn - 6,324 attendance - 9,600 capacity - 65.8% (first year in a new arena)
- Arkansas - 11,884 attendance - 19,368 capacity - 61.3%
- South Carolina - 10,427 attendance - 18,000 capacity - 57.9%
- Mississippi State - 5,710 attendance - 10,500 capacity - 54.3%
- LSU - 7,153 attendance - 13,472 capacity - 53.1%
No surprise, really: the five teams that made the NCAA Tournament led the league in capacity percentage. Meanwhile, if I was Rick Stansbury I'd be concerned: the Bulldogs were 12th in total attendance and 11th in capacity percentage while playing better basketball than LSU. When Buzz Peterson was fired, Tennessee would've been at or near the bottom of the capacity percentage list. Bruce Pearl had the Vols among the nation's leaders in attendance increase in his first year; Georgia was ninth on that list this year, up 1,416 from last season. That means the Dawgs were at just 64.9% full in 2009-10; a competitive product can change things in this league in a hurry.
I would imagine the top five teams on this list feel pretty good about their situation (except us with our unique circumstances). If you're flirting with 80% or better in what is without a doubt a football conference, you're doing a good job and probably turning a profit. No doubt some Tennessee fans were frustrated that attendance at TBA dipped under 19,000 for the first time since Pearl's first year, much the same way that it's strange to turn on some Florida games and see some empty seats in the upper deck. But those five Eastern Division programs have healthy basketball environments. It also goes to show you how strong of a hold football has in Tuscaloosa: Bama's chasing the dance floor, but only 70% show up to care.
Of course, Tennessee's healthy basketball environment is now in jeopardy. I think Cuonzo Martin could keep almost all of the 19,414 Pearl averaged during his six years here...if he won right away. But if Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris go pro, winning right away is too much to ask.
Also, here's what needs to be continually shouted from the heavens: during Jerry Green's four year NCAA Tournament run from 1998-2001, the Vols averaged just 15,562. Winning helps, but it ain't everything. You can't expect Cuonzo Martin to be the showman Bruce Pearl was and then criticize him when the attendance numbers drop. It's going to happen even if Martin gets the Vols back in the dance sooner than we think he will. It's just a question of how much.
I'm not sure what the magic attendance number is for the Vols to turn a profit, but for Tennessee Basketball to be healthy overall, I think the Vols need to hit between 16,000-17,000 per night. That would get you close to 80% capacity, which is currently the benchmark for good teams in this league. If Martin wins off of Pearl's success, I think the Vols will get there. It may never crack 20,000 a year again the way it did during Pearl's peak. But Thompson-Boling Arena can still be a good environment for basketball, and a 21,000 seat arena at 80% capacity is still loud enough to make a difference.
But the numbers, both at Tennessee and throughout the league, suggest SEC Basketball fans are fickle creatures outside of Lexington. LSU made a Final Four five years ago and won the SEC in 2009, and is now last in the league in capacity percentage. Arkansas is good traditionally and Mississippi State has been relatively strong in the last ten years, but now both have fanbases that apparently don't care to show up anymore. It isn't like football, where the Vols can still chase 100,000 with an inferior product. If you're not Kentucky, your fanbase can get away from you in a hurry.
It doesn't just happen at Tennessee, though that doesn't make it right or good when it happens elsewhere. So one of the most pressing questions for both Cuonzo Martin and Mike Hamilton will center on how many fans will keep moving forward with Tennessee Basketball after it left Bruce Pearl behind.