On Saturday, February 5, 2011, an overmatched University of South Florida Bulls men’s basketball team played the Syracuse Orange at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Normally, USF plays its home games at the Sun Dome, but only a few weeks into the season, the powers that be knew that this Syracuse team has a large following and the 10,411-seat on-campus facility would not be able to contain the fans from both teams.
The game's attendance reached 10,051, but the rain-soaked afternoon probably kept a multitude of fans from leaving their homes, so the move wasn’t necessarily a bad idea.
However, the crowd that showed up probably made the Bulls wish they never got off the team bus.
In the 72-49 drubbing of the uninspired Bulls, the crowd was a sea of orange. Of the 10,000-plus in attendance, I would guess at least 8,500 were Syracuse fans. Every Syracuse basket resulted in a roar from the crowd, and boos rained down for every call against the Orange, now ranked No. 12 nationally. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim remarked that it felt like a home game, which is a rarity in conference play.
There are several things that bother me about the attendance at USF basketball games, but this was definitely the biggest kick in the pants. USF plays in the Big East conference, which is the top basketball conference in America. The teams in the Big East boast 10 national championships (17 if you count Helms titles before the NCAA Tournament existed), 44 Final Fours and 360 NCAA Tournament appearances.
In 2005, USF left Conference USA to join the Big East, which in the basketball world was like trading a busted Yugo for a brand new Porsche.
Part of the excitement of the Big East is the fanaticism of the home crowds. From Syracuse’s Carrier Dome to Louisville’s Freedom Hall, opposing teams dread going on the road in the Big East because rabid fans make the game so much more difficult to play. The sheer energy of the noise at the Carrier Dome has chopped down many a formidable foe.
So what happens when Big East opponents travel to Tampa? It’s like they’re on vacation. By this I am not referring to the quality of play by the team. I am referring to the pitiful excuse for a fanbase USF has.
USF boasts an enrollment of over 46,000 students in a city with a population of over 300,000. The average attendance at a USF basketball game for last year's 20-win team was just under 5,000. This year's team is not nearly as competitive, and I would be surprised if attendance was more than 2,000 per game.
Just for argument’s sake, Syracuse University has an enrollment of around 10,000 and a city of only 140,000 but regularly puts over 30,000 into its stadium for basketball games. Of course, Syracuse is the gold standard for home attendance in the nation, but it’s interesting that a public school with over four times the student body and twice the local population can’t draw one-sixth the attendance.
I believe there are a few contributing factors, the first of which is seat placement. If you’ve ever seen a Duke University home game, the entire lower level is full of students because the lower section is the student section. At USF lower-level seating is reserved for alumni except for behind the backboards, which is reserved for students. This becomes even less intimidating when you realize that most of the non-student seating remains empty.
A home Big East game should be an event. Seating should be first come, first serve, and students should have the run of the place. This makes for an exciting atmosphere and one that the visitors will find a little more difficult than boosters and alumni sipping on wine like they’re at home on the couch watching the Lifetime Movie Network.
I know USF does a fine job promoting its events. The athletic department advertises its events on TV, radio and newspapers, so I don’t believe the problem is publicity. The facility is nice enough, and the prices are reasonable, so that’s not it.
If there was one criticism, from the information I received from USF Athletics, it's that there was no organized busing to the Syracuse game, which was off campus, so for some students going to the game would have been a hardship.
I’m going to chalk it up to a lack of understanding in this area of the importance of a home crowd. Having a loud and excited home crowd can be a huge benefit to a team in terms of getting in the opponents' heads and drowning out communication. Higher attendance can translate to inspired play and more wins. More wins equal more exposure, and more exposure is good for everyone.
People in Tampa seem to go to events when they are places to be seen, not to see events. It’s the only explanation I can come up with. The reason the students don’t go is that they are born and raised here and have no interest in basketball and therefore will only go to tournament games and playoffs. Ultimately, the Tampa fan is a good fan, but the Tampa resident is not, and there are a lot more residents than true fans.