Echoes of the bouncing basketball reverberated through the 8,800-seat Convocation Center as Eastern Michigan University’s star guard Raven Lee scored 46 points, tying for the most this season by a NCAA player, against Miami (OH) last week. “The Convo” wasn’t quiet because Eagles fans had nothing to cheer about--EMU won 94-69. The Convo was quiet because there were only about 700 people scattered around the two-level arena.
Despite regularly winning, attendance numbers over the years have been dropping at Eastern basketball games. According to the NCAA, since EMU moved to the Convocation Center in 1998, men’s basketball attendance has averaged 1,509 fans per game and only 892 over the last three seasons. From 1982-1998, when EMU played at the 5,400-seat Bowen Field House located on campus, EMU men’s basketball averaged 2,897 fans per game.
Information about women’s basketball attendance is less complete but shows a similar trend. The average attendance from 2004 to 2006 was 1,061 per game. The average from 2012 through last season was 525.
In recent years, Eastern has lagged behind the Mid-American Conference average by about 2,000 people per game for men’s and 500 for women’s. The Mid-American Conference’s attendance numbers have generally held steady as EMU’s have dropped. In 2014, the most recent year for which full NCAA attendance numbers are available, NCAA Division I men’s teams averaged 4,817 people per game. Eastern averaged 901 that year.
But Tony Orlando, Eastern’s Assistant Director of Athletics Marketing, warns that attendance numbers from other schools may be inflated because teams give away ticket blocks to corporate partners.
In most cases, the NCAA’s attendance numbers represent tickets distributed, not the actual “turnstile attendance.” In Eastern’s case, the turnstile attendance is estimated to be one half to one third of the reported attendance.
“We hope that the students who are on campus understand the value of experiencing athletic events on campus with your friends because it becomes a part of your college experience on the social side of things,” EMU’s Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Heather Lyke said. “What are you going to do on a Thursday or Friday night? And from a social standpoint we hope they come with their friends and go to a Division I athletic program.”
Eagles basketball games weren’t always quiet. Eastern superfan Carl Ebach, who has been going to EMU athletic events since 1994, remembers Bowen fondly.
“When it was packed you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was that loud. Bowen is very tinny, so it reverberated a lot,” Ebach said. “You could feel it in the floor. I never sat down, but I could hear the banging through the floor. It would really motivate the players.”
Ebach believes attendance numbers from Bowen were the actual turnstile attendance--not just tickets sold.
“Those were bodies in the building,” Ebach said.
Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations Greg Steiner and Ebach pointed out that Bowen wasn’t always full. But on average, per the NCAA attendance numbers, Bowen regularly drew three to four times more people for games than the men’s team did last season.
The Convo is about a 25-minute walk from campus, so drawing students is a challenge. The athletic department advertises a free shuttle service to basketball games, with several pickup points around campus, but the student body seems unaware of the service.
“We meet with other campus groups once a month. A big question when we meet is, ‘How can we engage the student population and get them to be active on campus, stay on campus, not go home on weekends, not go home in the evening, versus come to a basketball game?’” Orlando said. “It’s not just an athletic problem. It’s a university-wide problem.”
The Move to the Convo
EMU built the Convocation Center in the Winter of 1998, and the basketball teams started playing there at the start of the ‘98-’99 season. Attendance dropped for three seasons following the move and has generally gone down since.
“The Convo” offers modern amenities that Bowen couldn’t plus alternate revenue streams like graduations and concerts. Since the Convo has its own parking lot it’s easier for community-members to attend a game, but there’s no doubt the distance from campus makes it more difficult for students to attend events.
Effect on The Teams
Former EMU basketball player Glenn Bryant understands the issues with attendance.
“It's tough. I mean I'm one of those energy players that feeds off of the crowd,” Bryant said. “I'll never make the excuse that the fans are why we lost but they are part of when we win.”
Bryant made national news in 2014, following EMU’s first postseason game in 16 years, when he tweeted out [sic.], “We FORSURE got the top 5 worst support in the NCAA, it’s almost 30,000 students go to this school smh, y’all at ALL the parties tho.”
The tweet made waves and some of local media came to the defense of Bryant before it made it onto ESPN’s SportsNation and they created a poll that asked if he had a point.
“Coming from Oak Hill [Academy] playing in front of literally a sold out crowd every night, then being at Arkansas where they really love their basketball and football, even though we were not as good at Arkansas the fans still came to support,” Bryant said regarding his pre-EMU days. “Then when I got to Eastern and it was really like total shock.
“I really don't know if the fans know the real effect that they have on their sports teams,” Bryant said. “I mean I'm always ready to play no matter what but it is mentally draining warming up for a game with 50-60 people in a place that holds thousands”
Wins and Losses
Attendance at sporting events is always tied to the ups and downs of the team. Eastern’s highest basketball attendance came in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Ben Braun was the men’s coach--and EMU had plenty of success.
In 1991, the Eagles made it to the Sweet Sixteen. That year, the men’s team averaged 3,415 fans per game. Two years before the average was 4,118, still a record.
As former vice president of Eagle Nation, EMU’s student section, Frank Anderson saw his share of wins and losses.
“EMU basketball hadn't been great for a long time. Since Milton Barnes left, there were several single-digit win seasons (even in the year before [current men’s coach Rob] Murphy got here). So, being blunt, the product wasn't that great,” Anderson remembered. “That said, when I got involved in Eagle Nation sophomore year, we started winning much more than we did before. But at EMU, with a lot less media coverage than other teams, it's hard to change that reputation.”
The quality of those wins has come under fire recently. The Eagles have scheduled many teams from the NAIA, a smaller and different collegiate athletics association than the NCAA. The NAIA has two divisions, and Eastern has scheduled teams from the lower division, roughly equivalent to Division III NCAA teams.
“When you schedule these weaker teams, if you don’t win by 40 it’s not any good, and people understand that,” Ebach said. “People are bragging about 20-win seasons. Twenty-five percent of them are NAIA teams. It doesn’t mean anything.”
On Dec. 8, in comments seemingly directed at EMU athletics blog “Eagle Totem,” coach Rob Murphy, whose contract includes bonuses for good attendance, addressed scheduling criticism.
“We schedule the people we can afford to schedule, period. People complain, people write different things, but if some of those same people knew, they wouldn’t write some of the things that they write,” Murphy said. “It’s unfortunate for us [that] we don’t have 'buy money.' I would love to have a schedule full of Division I teams coming into the Convo.
“Buy money” refers to the money Eastern uses to pay non-conference opponents to play at the Convocation Center.
A.D. Lyke didn’t have much to say about Murphy’s comments.
“It’s the coach’s opinion.” she said.
Steiner cited several reasons for uninspiring non-conference home scheduling.
“The schedules are handled the best they can. I know the coaches try to get teams here, but there’s certainly limitations that make for challenges,” Steiner said. “Coaches have to look for games when they’re available and when other teams are available. That creates some interesting scheduling challenges.”
EMU’s success on the court may actually hamper their ability to get Division I teams to come to “The Convo.” The men’s team plays an unusual 2-3 zone defense, and the women’s team is coming off of a Sweet 16 finish at the WNIT. Division I teams wanting to avoid a non-conference loss might stay away from the Convocation Center.
After polling 79 EMU students at random in the middle of the fall semester, the results showed that a majority of students have not been to an EMU basketball game. Of the 79, only nine said they had been to a game. Not having enough time or having no interest were cited 76 times by the 70 people as reasons for why they hadn’t been to a game.
Students at Eastern and around the country have more options today than they did 15 years ago for watching sporting events.
“Very few games were on TV. Now everything’s on TV,” former EMU Sports Information Director Jim Streeter said. “Not only our games, but everyone else’s games, too. It gives everybody a huge option to do something else. If I have to stay home I’ll maybe watch half the game on TV.”
Last Summer, the Mid-American Conference entered into a deal with ESPN where member-schools would produce sports broadcasts themselves and ESPN would stream them on ESPN3, their “live, multi-screen network.” ESPN has similar deals with almost every other Division I conference.
“I think the student body in general, I look back to when I was a student and when I first started at Eastern, there were very few options,” Streeter said. “At night you didn’t have the IM building or games on TV or video games or any kind of personal things like that that you could do. People get so accustomed to saying, ‘I’ll go to the next game. I’ll do it later.’ Those kind of options really hurt it.”
Hope For The Future
So far, the news is good regarding Eagles basketball attendance this year. As of Feb. 7, the men are averaging 1224, the most since 2006. The women are averaging 1039.
The uptick in attendance may be due to EMU’s new deal with The Aspire Group, a sports business services company.
Eastern hired Aspire to handle ticket sales, and Aspire makes sales calls to potential ticket buyers--something EMU had never done before.
“Not even the Alabama Crimson Tide, as great of a program as they are at football, would they say, ‘Everybody’s gonna come to us.’ You have to make the effort to go to the people,” Orlando said.
He calls it an “outbound sales program” and thinks EMU might have been the only Division I school without one.
“We had a unique situation here where our ticket office operation was not an operation that reported to the department of athletics. That ticket operation was merged with not only athletic events but events that occurred outside of athletics at the Convo, and at Pease, at Quirk, and other areas,” Orlando said. “Because of that, how that reporting structure was set up, they were tasked with being more of an inbound ticket person instead of outbound, where people would need to call them or go to the ticket windows. They were more processors versus active engagers”
The program has two facets, one focusing on getting groups to come to the Convo, and one focusing on potential season ticket buyers, which appears to be working. Season tickets purchased has increased this year by more than 20 tickets for both the men’s and women’s teams.
Eastern basketball players have taken a more active role promoting their games as well. Before a recent game they went door-to-door in EMU dorms letting students know they had a game that night and that free shuttles to the Convo were available. They recorded their efforts and shared them on social media sites.
Orlando stressed that maintaining a fanbase can be a tricky thing, and time will tell if the gains this year are sustainable. Based on the historical attendance at “The Convo”, without a concerted effort from athletic department and teams, it may be difficult.
“It doesn’t end. Season ticket holders at all universities and professional organizations are being sold on next year halfway through that year,” Orlando said. “It’s a never-ending cycle because you want to maintain them. You don’t want to lose them.”
For EMU, this season has seen ups and downs but Tuesday night’s game against Central Michigan University brings rivalry and is a must-win home game for the Eagles. The question remains: Will fans show up?
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