It's ironic, because I've always struggled with math, but numbers intrigue me -- especially numbers in sports. So when a discussion started on Kellis Robinett's blog about Idaho State's basketball scheduling and attendance, I could not resist digging into some statistics. Here's what I found, and I doubt that any of it will stun long-time Bengal followers:
1. Idaho State fans like Big Sky Conference play more than non-conference games. I looked at attendance numbers for both non-conference and conference games over the last five complete seasons (NOT including this year's three home games so far). On average, Big Sky games over the last five years have drawn 2,396 fans -- compared to 2017 for nonconference games.
2. Given that Bengal fans don't seem to get revved up until January, then, it's noteworthy that BYU drew 4374 (the largest crowd for any ISU home game over the last six years). Even the 2816 that showed up for the Utah game, while certainly disappointing to ISU administrators, is a significant improvement over what the average non-conference game attracts.
3. The move back to Holt Arena from Reed Gym was a very wise move. Average attendance for non-conference games in Reed Gym was 1,867 fans, compared to 2,300 for non-conference games at Holt. (And those Holt Arena numbers will obviously go up this year, with the BYU and Utah crowds, and what should be a good turnout for Saturday night's matchup with Utah State).
A similar disparity can be seen when comparing Big Sky games in Holt with those at Reed: BSC games in Holt averaged 2,739, while those in Reed drew only 2,131. Even though Reed offered a more intense environment for the home fans, clearly many were turned off by the parking issues and lack of restrooms and concessions at Reed.
Doug Oliver made the decision to move to Reed largely because of conflicts over Holt Arena. His team could not practice there until the football season was over and the court was put down. He was often bumped from Holt --both for practice and games -- by outside events like the Simplot Games and the State Wrestling Tournament. Oliver simply figured that if he was going to have to practice and play a percentage of his games in Reed anyway, he might as well make it a complete home court advantage by playing them all there.
Obviously some of those Holt access problems have not gone away. This year's basketball team will be bumped for two home games at the end of the season to make way for the wrestling tournament, and the team did not practice in Holt until the football season ended. But current Coach Joe O'Brien realized the liability of recruiting to Reed, which would only rank as a middling high school facility these days, and Bengal fans have endorsed the move back to Holt with their pocket books.
Speaking of Attendance
Some of the fans on the Robinett blog were reminiscing about the "good old days" of the Herb Williams regime, back in the mid-1990s, when the Bengals drew big crowds for a couple of very competitive teams --one of which (the 1993-94 team) tied for the Big Sky regular season title. It's true the Bengals once drew about 7,000 fans for a game with Idaho and its star, Orlando Lightfoot, during that time frame, and it was not unusual to get 5,000 to 6,000 fans for the key attractions: Idaho, Boise State and Weber State. So what happened to those kinds of crowds?
Well, in my humble opinion, four things:
1. Obviously, Boise State and Idaho left the Big Sky Conference, those rivalries were badly diluted, and, when BSU and Idaho come to Pocatello every other year in December, those games are not "happenings" any more. The last time Boise State (2,883) and Idaho (3009) played in Holt, they drew good crowds by non-conference standards, but about half of what they would have drawn when they both still belonged to the Big Sky Conference. The Broncos and Vandals had long-standing rivalries with all of the original BSC members, and their departure wiped out big gates for teams throughout the league.
2. The entire conference is still suffering from the loss of the Broncos, Vandals and the University of Nevada. Average per game attendance in the Big Sky fell 400 a game the year Nevada left the league in 1992. Five seasons later, after BSU and Idaho left, it plummeted from 4,400 to 2,900 per game. The league traded two relatively large fan bases in Boise and Reno for Portland State and Sacramento State, two schools that don't draw flies. Last year, the league averaged 2,329 fans per game, tying the mark set during the 2004-05 season for the worst attendance since the league started keeping track in the 1975-76 season.
3. Weber State is no longer a dominant program, and their descent into mediocrity has removed their designation as the team everyone else in the league loves to hate. The Wildcats still hold the season record for average attendance -- 9,868, set by the 1979-80 team. Last year, by contrast, Weber averaged a little more than a third of that -- 3,577. The Wildcat fans don't travel as well, either, and that impacts Idaho State more than any other team in the league.
4. Montana went from a basketball school to a football powerhouse. Ask anybody attending an Idaho State-Montana basketball game in Dahlberg Arena in the 1970s what the most popular sport in Missoula was, and, if it wasn't "potato rolling," it most certainly would have been hoops. Grizzly football and dilapidated Dornblaser Stadium were mere afterthoughts. Now, however, football is king in Montana, and the Griz basketball team is just something to kill time between the playoffs and spring practice. That has not only hurt the gate in Missoula, but it has dampened the Griz "draw factor" around the rest of the league. as well.
One final perspective on the attendance issue. While there may be particular seasons when good programs rise up and enjoy a boost in attendance, I doubt we'll see a return to those days of the 1980s when Big Sky teams routinely averaged 5,000 a game. There is simply too much competition, with a dozen or more college and professional basketball games on television every night, and professional teams just down the road from Idaho State, Weber State, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Northern Arizona and Sacramento State. That competition, and the loss of rivals Boise State and Idaho, means it will be a very difficult pull just to get average league attendance back to the 3,000 per game mark.
And thanks for being a Bengal -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.