Big Slump: Ticket sales, actual basketball attendance down considerably compared with past decade

Infographic by Thy Vo / The Sunflower

Attendance numbers at Wichita State basketball home games are at their lowest they’ve been in over 20 years – aside from last season’s limited attendance. 

The average attendance from this year –which reveals tickets sold, given away and allocated – currently sits at 8,365. In the past two decades, these numbers have been above 10,000, excluding last season’s average of 1,617. There have also been six seasons with every game sold out in that timeframe.

“We went a year where fans basically weren’t allowed to come,” Athletic Director Darron Boatright said. “A lot of times when that’s the case, you find other opportunities and other things to fill your entertainment time with. (College athletics) has made it so easy for our fans to just sit anywhere they want and watch games.”

The last time average attendance was below 9,000 was 2002-2003, when the season was played at the Kansas Coliseum, while renovations were being made to Charles Koch Arena. 

Ticket scans – which reveal the amount of people attending – are also showing a downward trend. In the last two seasons without restrictions, ticket scans averaged 6,958 in 2018-19 and 7,262 in 2019-20. This year, the average ticket scans through 10 games are 4,945. 

Boatright believes these attendance issues stem from a wide variety of reasons, including fans not feeling comfortable attending sporting events yet. Fans are required to wear masks to sporting events on campus, in accordance with the university’s COVID-19 policy.

Rodney Gates, a longtime WSU season ticket holder, said he thinks that COVID-19 is making an impact on the attendance, along with the team’s recent performance.

“I believe the attendance is lower because of COVID, as I believe the age of our crowd is older and thus at a higher risk of more severe COVID symptoms if they contract the virus,” Gates said.

“I think that even though many of those fans are vaccinated they are staying away because of breakthrough cases. Secondarily, because of the poorer performance of the team.” 

The ticket scans for this season have also revealed that fewer fans are coming as the season has gone on. Over 5,000 fans showed up to each of the non-conference games – excluding the game against Norfolk State (4,743 ticket scans). Since AAC play started, WSU drew the most for the New Year’s Day clash with Memphis with 4,298 fans. 

Boatright said the team’s performance has played a role in this decline, despite winning an AAC regular season title last year. The Shockers are 6-5 in home games this season, which is the most losses in a season since 2007-08. It’s also the earliest a fifth home loss has occurred since the 1995-96 season. 

“There are some that don’t agree with the coaching change that was 15-16 months ago. So, that’s there,” Boatright said. “There are some that didn’t like our home non-conference schedule. We didn’t have trouble drawing downtown for Kansas State so not everyone has thrown in the towel.

“We’re known for our attendance and obviously that’s down. I think it’s too complex to put your finger on one thing and say this is what it is. I think they’re all factors and I think they’re all real.”

A comparison of attendance from Jan. 4, 2018 against Houston (File Photo by Matt Crow / The Sunflower) and from Jan. 12 against Tulane (Mia Hennen / The Sunflower).

WSU has historically produced some of the best attendance numbers in the past 20 years, with the program finishing in the top 50 nationally from 2003-2020. Boatright said he doesn’t see those numbers returning immediately, especially with college athletics as a whole experiencing a decline in attendance. 

“I don’t know if we will see those numbers where they were again for a while,” Boatright said. “It’s definitely a problem that we are forced to deal with here at Wichita State but it’s not unique to our situation. I look and watch many events and see people dealing with the same thing. I don’t think it’s unique to us, however, we have an expectation of outdrawing people and we have to be back to that.”

WSU has gained a reputation for their attendance over the years but this decline is now being noted at a national level. CBS analyst Jim Spanarkel said on air how quiet the arena had gotten during WSU’s 18 point loss. 

“It’s like they’re at a movie theater almost watching this game,” Sparnakel said.

Fans have voiced their displeasure with how things are going with Wichita State basketball in the age of social media. The players have taken notice with comments about them and questioning head coach Isaac Brown as their coach. 

After the loss to Cincinnati on Sunday, players said it will be important to “block out the noise” surrounding the program.

“We’ve got 13 more conference games,” sophomore Tyson Etienne said. “We could end up going 13-4 and people look back at the end of March and say, ‘Man, they went 13-4, that’s a great conference record.’”

“And everybody that hopped off will hop back on,” WSU junior Dexter Dennis added.

Boatright said the solution is very simple to identify. It’s to win. 

The Shockers opened conference play with an 0-4 record, the worst start since they joined the AAC in 2017. WSU’s NCAA Tournament hopes look bleak, with the rough start to the season but Boatright remains confident in a return to winning.

“We can give away all the kool-aid and whatever alligators you want to but that’s not going to fill your stadium,” he said. “You want to win and we’re accustomed to that. I’m confident that’s what we’re going to do.”