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Does UNC Have a Basketball Attendance Problem?

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The NCAA released the attendance figures for the 2015-16 basketball season. UNC finished ranked 4th nationally in attendance with an average of 18,326 per game for 16 home games.  That number ranks as the fourth lowest since 2000 for UNC.

Here is how this season stacked up in that era.

Season Games Total Average Rank
2016 16 293,219 18,326 4th
2015 15 293,723 19,582 4th
2014 18 324,458 18,025 4th
2013 16 309,603 19,350 4th
2012 18 362,867 20,159 4th
2011 15 287,155 19,144 4th
2010 19 337,934 17,786 5th
2009 15 315,519 21,035 3rd
2008 16 327,953 20,497 2nd
2007 17 351,785 20,693 3rd
2006 17 344,071 20,239 3rd
2005 15 307,840 20,522 3rd
2004 14 291,223 20,802 3rd
2003 18 336,384 18,688 4th
2002 16 261,109 16,319 8th
2001 14 291,705 20,836 2nd
2000 12 241,953 20,163 3rd

If you are looking for trends one that sticks out is UNC has only topped 20K once since the 2009 title year. The dip to 17K in 2010 is not surprising given how that season went. The Marshall-Barnes-Henson-Zeller teams of 2011 and 2012 were a nice draw topping 19K in 2011 and cross the 20K barrier in 2012. Since then no season has drawn more than 19,582 which came in 2014.

There are various factors that impact attendance numbers such as quality of opponents at home and scheduling and how people watch games(more on that later.) Those factors probably explain some of the ebb and flow as does how well the team is doing. That makes the 2016 number curious. UNC went into the season ranked #1 and one of the favorites to win the national title. This clearly didn't boost the attendance numbers with UNC finishing with a lower average than the Tar Heels pulled during the 2003 NIT season.

Is that a cause for concern? Does UNC have an attendance problem? The consistent ranking at 4th over the past six years and perennial presence in the top five would indicate that if there is an attendance issue it is across the whole sport. While UNC's numbers are certainly lower than one might expect for a Final Four contender, it doesn't seem to have cost the Tar Heels in the overall ranking. UNC drew less but apparently so did everyone else.

In fact college basketball has been bleeding home attendance for almost ten years now.

Season Change Average
2006 382,208 5198
2007 1,757,319 5327
2008 568,991 5325
2009 -414,877 5185
2010 -213,804 5038
2011 -17,309 5025
2012 166,318 4994
2013 103,516 4921
2014 -356,532 4817
2015 -177,147 4754
2016 -96,097 4744

Only four seasons in the last ten have registered growth in the total college basketball home attendance. However since 2007 there has been a steady decline in average attendance even in seasons(2012, 2013) where the total number went up.

It has been clear for awhile that attending live athletic contests isn't as attractive as it once was even ten years ago. The advent of HDTV makes watching from home a more convenient and cheaper choice than attending the game. Even the way people follow sports teams is changing with "catching the game" live might not be as important as it was for previous generations.

As for UNC, there is little doubt Bubba Cunningham is paying close attention to these numbers. UNC has beend debating whether to renovate or replace the Dean Smith Center. The current attendance trends will certainly impact that project if and when UNC decides to pursue it.