Numbers matter in sports competition.
Won-loss records. Shooting percentages. Defensive statistics. Those are all important.
But in college athletics, there is another number that is perhaps even more important, particularly among the “major” sports like football, basketball, and baseball. That number is the one counted at the gate.
If a program can’t put fannies in the seats, the head coach won’t have a job for long. That revenue stream from ticket sales is a large part of what keeps a program alive.
So, based on that reality, the basketball programs at Northern Arizona University are on life support.
The men’s team drew 405 fans for its last game, with Southern Utah. OK, Southern Utah is in 9th place in the Big Sky Conference, just a few spots ahead of the cellar-dwelling Lumberjacks. But when the conference’s No. 1 team, Montana, visited Flagstaff at the end of December, there were only 604 die-hard fans there to watch.
And the women’s team, which is 5-18, doesn’t provide much of an alternative for viewer enjoyment. Their last home game, also against Montana, was a long way from hitting the 1,000 attendance mark — just 398 filled seats, to be exact.
But it’s generally the men’s program that is counted on to fill the coffers. Sadly, women’s basketball, unless you’re talking about the elite programs like Connecticut, doesn’t draw enough to be a major contributor.
In comparing NAU to the other college programs in the state… the Arizona State men’s last home game was played in front of a crowd of 14,025, and University of Arizona pulled in 14,644. Even Grand Canyon University, which is in its first year of Division I play, fills its 7,000-seat arena for every home game.
The difference, of course, between the crowds in Flagstaff and those down on the desert floor also comes down to numbers. But in this case, it’s number of wins. Winning cures a lot of ills, particularly when it comes to trying to save a dying fan base.
But head coach Jack Murphy is caught in a catch-22 that is hard to escape. In order to win, you need better talent. But in order to attract that talent you have to have a winning program. How hard is that when you bring a potential recruit to a game and he sees a couple of hundred people scattered around the Walkup Skydome that seats 10,000? They had more fans watching them in high school.
Arizona State began the season with a school-record 12 straight wins, is now 19-6, and the hottest ticket in town. The school just removed some temporary walls that had been erected a few years back to cover up empty seats, to accommodate the new wave of ticket-buyers.
And down in Tucson, the Wildcats had a ton of pre-season buzz when the Wildcats were picked to win the Pac-12 Conference and possibly find their way into the Final Four for the first time in head coach Sean Miller’s tenure. The Cats are 20-6 and 10-3 in conference play, sitting comfortably in first place in the competitive Pac-12.
And GCU has notched 17 wins so far in its first season following a four-year transition from D-II to D-I. It was picked in the pre-season as a favorite to win the Western Athletic Conference.
But here’s the key to the success of these teams in building enthusiasm among the home-town faithful… they win at home.
The three teams have a combined five losses when protecting their own houses. ASU is 12-2 at home, UofA is 13-1, and GCU is 13-2. When fans can expect a good game, especially a winning game, they show up.
The NAU men are 1-9 at home and the women are 2-8.
These wilting numbers are particularly dangerous for Murphy, who is in his sixth season as head coach. The former UofA assistant coach is coming off two consecutive seasons of single-digit wins, going 0-23 last year and 5-25 the year before. Loree Payne is just finishing up her first year directing the women’s program, trying to breathe new life into a program that has been moribund for what seems like forever. The program is on its 10th head coach in 40 years, a program that has produced just three 20-win seasons in that span of four decades.
Payne will be given time to prove herself. But time has probably run out for Murphy.
The numbers don’t lie.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)