Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Scheduling and Attendance

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.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Thoughts During a "Cross-Over Week"

It's one of those weeks when the future and present collide, where one sport is getting ready to rebuild for next season, and one faces a big challenge in the here-and-now. Where to start?

How about first-things-first. Wednesday is the first day that mid-year transfers from junior colleges can sign with four-year football programs. The Idaho State coaching staff is placing a good deal more emphasis on junior college recruiting this year, because the Bengals need immediate help on a number of fronts. In particular, Coach John Zamberlin (above) and his staff are looking for defensive linemen and linebackers who can make an immediate impact next year. Given a choice, of course, any coaching staff would prefer a mid-year JC transfer who can get into school in January and take part in spring football. Sometimes, though, the better junior college athletes are available to schools like Idaho State when they are fall enrollees, simply because a lot of bigger schools won't be willing to wait for them if they can't transfer in January.

In the past, Idaho State has sometimes waited to announce its mid-year transfers on the more traditional "national signing day" in February, when high school recruits can first sign. (This year, that date is Feb. 4.) I don't know how Coach Z will want to play announcements this year, but I know there are a lot of anxious Bengal fans looking forward to a solid JC recruiting class, whenever the players enroll, and whenever their signing is announced.

On to Hoops

While Zamberlin and company build for next season, Coach Joe O'Brien and his men's basketball team will get another quick reality check on where they stand this year when the Bengals host Utah State on Saturday night. The Aggies are 6-1 with their only loss a two-pointer to a very good BYU team at Energy Solutions Arena on Dec. 6. Utah State is led by two talented big men -- 6-11 Gary Wilkinson, who was the pre-season WAC Player of the Year; and multi-dimensional Tai Wesley, a 6-8 F who usually marks in every statistical category.

Like most Stew Morrill teams, this year's Aggies are good shooters, hitting over 54 percent from the field. They are also a dominant rebounding team this year -- Utah State is outrebounding its opponents by 12 a game so far. If the Bengals are going to win Saturday night, two things have to happen: 7-footer David Busmas has to stay out of foul trouble long enough to contribute, and the Bengal wing players, in particular Matt Stucki, Amorrow Morgan and Donnie Carson, have to make big efforts on the glass. Busma picked up three fouls in only 9 minutes against Wisconsin-Green Bay last week, had three fouls against Wisconsin, and fouled out against Utah. He needs to be a presence for at least 20 minutes against Wilkinson and the Aggies.

It is no revelation, meanwhile, to say that the Bengals always play their best when Stucki, Morgan and Carson are playing at a high level. They are Idaho State's best athletes, and they have to score and rebound for the Bengals to beat good teams like Utah State. That trio put up 43 points and 17 rebounds in the win over Utah. By contrast, they combined for only 17 points and 8 boards in the dud against Wisconsin-Green Bay last week.

Finally, Back to Football For a Moment

Montana will try to bring a national championship back to the Big Sky Conference when the Grizzlies meet Richmond in the FCS title game Friday night in Chattanooga. The Griz have been in the title game six times, winning twice. They are the only Big Sky Conference team to reach the championship game since Boise State lost to Youngstown State in 1994. I must say, I'm conflicted about whether to root for the Griz. On the one hand, a Big Sky championship is a Big Sky championship; on the other, another Montana title only continues to reinforce the notion that the Big Sky is a one-trick pony on the national scene. Since Boise State, Idaho and Nevada left the league, the Griz are the only BSC team to make a dent on the national consciousness.

As I try to decide who to cheer for, I'll go ahead and give you my keys to a Montana win Friday night: 1) Stop Josh Vaughan, who has run for 1722 yards and 19 touchdowns, on first and second down, forcing the Spiders to put it up more than they'd like; and 2) Protect QB Cole Berquist. The Grizzly QB has been sacked a whopping 48 times this year, and he'll be going up against two of the better defensive linemen in the FCS in Lawrence Sidbury (16 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks) and Sherman Logan (12.5 TFLS, 6 sacks). The Griz need emerging RB Chase Reynolds to continue to be a force on early downs, keeping the play-action passing game viable. If the Spiders throw a web around Reynolds (weak play on words, I know), it's going to be a long night for the Griz.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.