After Thursday’s gut-wrenching, double-overtime loss in front of an enthusiastic crowd at Purdue, Richard Pitino’s Gophers could be emotionally drained heading into Sunday’s home game against Northwestern.
At times like this, college basketball teams rely on their fans to provide a spark and help prevent a lingering letdown. It’s the home-court advantage. But even with the Gophers coming off a second-round NCAA tournament appearance last season, attendance has been stagnant this season.
The biggest victory in Pitino’s seven seasons in Minnesota — last month over then-No. 3 Ohio State — featured a student-led court-storming. But the announced attendance for that game was 9,854.
Overall attendance numbers at the Barn are down slightly, mirroring a national trend. The average home crowd for Gophers games has been 9,560, compared with 10,063 through seven home dates a year ago.
But after a slow start, the Gophers have been playing their best basketball of late. Pitino hopes the fans step up, too. He’s urging them to “bring it” during the heart of Big Ten play.
“It’s been challenging, but I want the Barn to be packed,” Pitino said. “It’s a fun environment to be in when it gets going.”
The season following Pitino’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 2017, the average home attendance in the first two months was 11,800, including announced sellouts of 14,625 against Miami and Harvard.
Division I college hoops in general has seen average attendance drop to record lows the past few years. It fell to 4,593 last season, the lowest since the NCAA first collected attendance data in 1971.
“Everyone is dealing with the same attendance challenges,” Gophers assistant athletic director for marketing Mike Wierzbicki said. “Entertainment itself — it’s harder to get people’s attention given how people consume content.
“College sports is seeing that. It’s not basketball-specific. … It’s really hard to get attention and to get people as invested in what we’re doing.”
Player familiarity helps, but the Gophers had to replace their top two players from last season — Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey — and came back with seven newcomers. That made it harder for fans to warm up to this team. The Gophers also had three of their first four games away from home and lost them all.
So despite winning their first NCAA tournament game in six years last season, the Gophers drew fewer than 9,000 fans for each of their first three home games this season, facing Cleveland State, Central Michigan and North Dakota.
The schedule plays a part, too. Attendance ticked up for the next three games, all against high-major opponents — DePaul, Clemson and Ohio State. Upsetting the Buckeyes helped the Gophers draw a season-high 10,546 for their final nonconference home game against Florida International, even though motorists faced icy roads that Saturday afternoon a few days after Christmas.
“I do think I beefed up the [nonconference] schedule,” Pitino said. “I’ve tried to reward our fans with some good nonconference games in the Barn because there’s a loyal group there that wants to see that.”
Even with a modest crowd against Ohio State, the Gophers could feel the energy on the raised floor.
“The crowd was great,” said Marcus Carr, who scored a career-high 35 points that night. “I kind of just wanted to give back to them because they gave to us throughout the whole game and gave us a great atmosphere.”
Carr, a sophomore point guard, is a transfer from Pittsburgh who had to sit out last season, but fans are getting to know him better. Now they can see his potential, and that of sophomore center Daniel Oturu, who is an emerging All-America candidate, averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Winning is the ultimate answer, of course. The Gophers rarely lost at home during both recent NCAA tournament seasons. They already have a big-time résumé win at home, and before the next opportunity comes, it’s important to keep the fan interest level rising Sunday.
“It takes a little bit of time to gather momentum,” Wierzbicki said. “I think hopefully we can start to see that in the Big Ten season.”