John Klein: Eddie Sutton discusses declining basketball attendance
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Sunday, February 10, 2013
2/10/13 at 8:11 AM
Go to John Klein's Blog Original Print Headline: Eddie Sutton discusses declining attendance
Eddie Sutton coached 1,132 college basketball games.
But, when it comes to being a college basketball fan, he's like a growing number of folks.
"I'll stay at home and watch it on television," said Sutton. "I'm as guilty of that as anyone. There's just so many games on television.
"It is so easy to stay home and watch. And, if the game is bad, I can turn it off."
Sutton, the legendary former coach at Oklahoma State, can still be found many nights in his familiar spot at Gallagher-Iba Arena. He has seats across Eddie Sutton Court from the scorer's table.
He's also a regular at Oral Roberts, where two of his sons now work in the family business. He is often invited to games at Oklahoma, Tulsa and the Oklahoma City Thunder by former players, assistant coaches and friends in the basketball business.
So, unlike many college basketball fans, Sutton still attends many games.
"I still love to go to the games," said Sutton. "But, I understand how difficult it is for some people."
Coupled with a decline in success at the state's major college basketball programs, attendance has taken a serious downward turn.
Oklahoma State, ranked 22nd and with one of the top players in college basketball, continues to struggle to put fans back in Gallagher-Iba Arena. An announced crowd of 7,527 watched OSU's dramatic overtime victory over Baylor last week. Two weeks ago, it was less than half full for a last-second victory over Iowa State.
It is the same story all around the state. Attendance has always been a struggle at Oklahoma, where football overwhelms all sports. Tulsa hasn't recovered from nine straight years without an NCAA Tournament bid. Oral Roberts seldom fills half of the deluxe Mabee Center, built for overflow crowds in the 1970s.
"Winning is the biggest thing," said Sutton. "That's always the biggest thing. If you win, I think that will bring back many of the fans."
Sutton notices the empty seats. It would be hard not to notice the sea of empty orange seats at Gallagher-Iba Arena, where Sutton's teams played to sold-out and wildly enthusiastic crowds just a few years ago.
Attendance, for a variety of reasons, is down all around the country. Too much television. One-and-done players. The tournament waters down the regular season. Not winning enough. Pick your reason.
"The game of basketball is in shambles," Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds told the American Austin-Statesman last week.
During the Sutton era in Stillwater, the crowds at Gallagher-Iba Arena, especially for big games, were legendary for their excitement, enthusiasm and ear-piercing noise.
From the opening of the renovated GIA (2000-2001) until last season, OSU basketball had never averaged fewer than 10,000 fans per game. In fact, in seven of the first eight years after the renovation, OSU basketball averaged more than 12,000 per game.
In the last five years, OSU has topped 11,000 per game just once (2009-2010).
Basketball, a popular and successful winter sport in our state just a decade ago, is in serious decline among fans.
Can it be fixed? Probably.
Can it return to its glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s? That's another question entirely.
For starters, the landscape has changed. The arrival of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the subsequent success of that NBA franchise, is an enormous drain on the available fan base in this state.
It is not cheap to go see the Thunder. It requires a big commitment financially and, for fans in northeastern Oklahoma, significant time and effort.
"I don't know how much impact the Thunder has had on Oklahoma State or Tulsa or ORU," said Sutton. "No doubt, because of how close it is, it has impacted OU."
But the lack of a competitive team, a threat to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament as was typical of the Sutton years, is hurting OSU.
That seems to be the same issue at Tulsa. These are successful programs that have fallen from great heights. It will take some time, and a new-found success, to bring fans back.
"I think what really hurts Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is all of the television," said Sutton. "Why drive from Tahlequah or Tulsa to Stillwater when you can stay home and watch it on television? Why show up when you can see it sitting on your couch?
"But, to be honest, that hasn't hurt the really good programs."
That's true. Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky continue to pack the house while much of college basketball experiences a decline in attendance.
"I also think ticket prices are a factor," said Sutton. "I know I was always concerned about that at Oklahoma State. You just can't keep raising ticket prices.
"I think there is a segment of people out there that get to a point where they have to decide whether to buy football tickets or basketball tickets. They simply can no longer afford to buy both."
OSU coach Travis Ford has been actively working to get students more involved in Stillwater. He has helped organize ticket giveaways and gets out on campus to promote the team.
That's similar to when Sutton used to do his weekly call-in radio shows from OSU fraternities and sororities.
"That is so important at every school to get your students involved," said Sutton. "Not only do they bring a lot of enthusiasm to the gym but they are your future ticket-buying alums.
"That is a great way to build your fan base. And, students just bring a lot of excitement to the games."
Tulsa's attendance decline was steady throughout Doug Wojcik's seven seasons. It didn't help that Wojcik was critical of TU fans, alienating many of them, and often combative with the media.
There's a lot at work in the decision to go or not go to college basketball games.
"There are probably a lot of reasons," said Sutton. "But, winning is still the most important."
Former Oklahoma State basketball coach Eddie Sutton acepts a check in honor of Oklahoma State Counseling on the 12th anniversary of a plan crash which killed ten members of the Oklahoma State basketball team and staff. Sutton was presented the check at Gallagher Iba Arena in Stillwater. KT KING / For the Tulsa World