It could take time before UW men’s basketball sees bigger crowds
Washington is unbeaten at 7-0 and ranked 17th, but the Huskies are unlikely to see big crowds soon. They have had a three-year postseason drought and are coming off two mediocre seasons, which hurt season-ticket sales.
/ Seattle Times staff reporter
The Huskies’ return to the top-25 rankings after a three-year absence is a sign of improvement, but the No. 17 Washington men’s basketball team is still waiting for its fans to return in droves to Alaska Airlines Arena.
An intimate but vocal crowd of 6,199 witnessed Sunday’s 49-36 win over then-No. 13 San Diego State. It was a significant increase from the 2,898 at the season opener, but nowhere near the crowd size Washington attracted to the 10,000-seat arena in its heyday.
“It felt better, but it’s not close to what it felt like before,” coach Lorenzo Romar said after the win over the Aztecs. “We’ve just got to try to keep winning and doing our part.”
Still, even if Washington (7-0) is able to sustain its recent success, Romar is unsure if UW fans are ready to fully embrace this team after two mediocre seasons and a three-year NCAA tournament drought.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We have to worry about us. We have to worry about us playing the best that we can play and hope that people follow.”
At its peak, Washington drew an average of 9,650 fans for 16 home games during the 2010-11 season, which included four sellouts.
In each of the next three seasons attendance gradually declined and bottomed out last season, when UW averaged 6,582 for 18 home games.
UW officials aren’t surprised by the low turnouts this season because the school received tepid response during a summer promotional ticket campaign, said Lance Lopes, senior associate athletic director.
“Historically Washington basketball has had difficulty getting the attention in November and December in this market even (going) back to the better teams,” he said. “The nonconference schedule was always hit or miss in terms of getting people interested. And we see that again this year. Based on what’s happened the last few years it’s been an uphill battle for us to get people to pay attention to the start that our team has had.”
Lopes, who spent the previous 13 years as the Seahawks’ senior vice president and general counsel before joining UW in February, knows a thing or two about growing a fan base. During his Seahawks tenure he watched the formation of the team’s 12th Man, which is considered one of the most vocal and supportive fan bases in the NFL.
“Since I’ve been here, this community supports success,” he said. “It’s remarkable whether it be baseball or football. The fans are there. The one thing we have to have more of is success.
“I’m confident if the team delivers on the court all of those fans will be back, but right now we’ve been in a period of time here over the last few years where we haven’t been as good as we’d hoped. Our fans are not embracing the product the way that we think they will when we get back to winning.”
Other factors might have led to the apathy surrounding Husky basketball, such as fans’ discontent with a dampened game-day experience and the lack of local players, said Alex Akita, a former UW student (2003-07). Akita was one of the early pioneers of the Dawg Pack, the group of students who sit together at UW home games.
“The band takes a backseat to pumping music,” he said. “There’s hype videos that gets nobody hyped.
“You think back to those teams in the early to mid 2000s, you had a lot of homegrown kids from Seattle who really just went out there and played their hearts out for their city every night. A lot of fans really enjoyed that. It resonated with them mainly because they followed a lot of these kids’ high-school careers. You had Brandon Roy and Will Conroy and guys like that who people really enjoyed to watch play.”
Washington has sold about 3,300 season tickets, and it’s going to be difficult for the Huskies to draw large crowds this month considering their next four home games are against non-marquee opponents (Eastern Washington, Grambling, Tulane and Stony Brook) during the winter break when students are out of school.
Lopes said the Jan. 10 Pac-12 opener against Washington State “is one that we’re going to put a tremendous amount of energy and focus on to get the building full.”
Washington’s last sellout was a 79-70 win on Feb. 18, 2012, against Arizona.
“We can only do our part,” Romar said. “That’s all we can do. We are fortunate in that we have not lost a game and I think we play an exciting brand of basketball.
“I know what our fans are capable of. When that place is full and it’s rocking they make it very, very difficult on the opposition. We’ve seen what it looks like in there. It’s a great feeling for all of our players. They talk about it when the place is full and it’s a great place to play.”
Since reaching an all-time high during the 2010-11 season, attendance at Washington men’s basketball games has declined each of the past four seasons.