Historically Low Attendance At UConn Men's Basketball, Football Games As Programs Try To Rebuild

Kelli Stacy
Contact Reporterkstacy@courant.com

All four stops of the UConn Huskies Coaches Roadshow were packed, just as the athletic department leaders had hoped. Fans, alumni and donors crowded into the spaces eager to mingle with the university’s top coaches. While it was their goal to get people in the door, the events were held with a greater objective in mind.

The roadshow was another step toward re-energizing the UConn fan base in hopes of increasing ticket sales, donations and interest in teams in a department that’s seen a decline in terms of attendance and revenue in some of its biggest moneymaking sports.

Men’s basketball games had the lowest average attendance numbers in 30 years at an average 7,829 last year. The football team had its lowest attendance since Rentschler Field opened 15 years ago with a drop-off of over 6,000 from last year, while women’s basketball creeps up on the program in terms of per-game revenue, making about $200,000 less than football.

The roadshow was a first for the athletic department with Geno Auriemma, Dan Hurley, Randy Edsall and others traveling to meet fans in Glastonbury, Branford, Stamford and New York. By connecting more closely with fans, the hope is that it will encourage them to continue supporting the athletic department.

“It’s very important to get out and engage with our fan base and alums and get them energized,” athletic director David Benedict said. “Hopefully we see that pay off.”

The difficulties UConn has had getting fans to games has translated into a drop in home-game revenue, which can be crippling for an athletic department at a university that is facing financial hurdles. In 2017 the university saw a $143 million cut in state funding. Despite bringing in $83,374,223 — over $20 million more than any other school in the AAC — the department made just $252,403 after expenses. Of the $83.3 million counted as revenue, however, about $43 million is considered a subsidy and includes student fees and financial support from the state and UConn.

UConn is currently sitting outside of the Power Five, which means it’s missing out on significant broadcast revenue, and many opponents that have past connections with the Huskies that would be sure to lure fans. While the Huskies have vied for a spot in one of the top conferences, they haven’t had any luck. Their best shot was likely the open ACC position that Louisville took. With the ACC’s recent TV deal, Louisville looks to make upwards of $10 million on the contract alone while UConn received just over $7.3 million from the AAC in the last fiscal year. Part of that money came from the last of the Big East exit fees that ran out in June.

As the department’s struggles with attendance and revenue continue, Benedict is confident in the steps the department has taken to fix the problem, while admitting that past performance has played a role in the issues.

“We’re doing a lot of different things,” Benedict said. “Part of it is ultimately in football it’s been a while since we’ve had success. … It’s the same with (men’s) basketball in a way, where unfortunately the past two seasons were two of the worst in the last 30 years. That’s had an impact.”

Here’s a financial look at each of the programs.

Men’s Basketball Takes A Tumble

While the women’s basketball team has had continued success for more than two straight decades, the men’s team has struggled in the last few years and it’s shown in ticket sales. In the past two seasons the team went 30-35. In that same time frame, attendance has dropped by 903 people per home game to bring average attendance to the lowest it’s been in the past 30 years.

The men’s program is now transitioning with Kevin Ollie’s firing, although Ollie is attempting to keep the university on the hook for the remaining $10 million left on his contract. Despite the legal battle playing out, the athletic department hopes to see an upswing in ticket sales as new-hire Dan Hurley begins to reinvigorate UConn men’s fans.

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“Dan Hurley is getting traction with season ticket sales,” Benedict said. “People are starting to get excited.”

Hurley is only one piece in the puzzle, though. The department is also working on scheduling opponents across all sports, but especially basketball, that will get fans interested. Former Big East rival schools are their primary target such as Syracuse, who the Huskies play on Dec. 5.

“We’re working on scheduling,” Benedict said. “We’re looking to schedule games our fans are excited about, like games with old Big East rivals.”

Women’s Basketball Sees Gains

Coming off a one-loss season, the UConn women had the second highest season ticket sales for Gampel Pavilion in the past 10 years and outsold the men’s team by 561 per home game at the venue in the 2017 season. This translated into higher average attendance for the women at 10,096 fans per game

The women sold significantly more season tickets for games at both Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center, exceeding the previous season’s sales by a combined 2,014.

Despite the success, Auriemma has bigger dreams for the program and the athletic department as a whole and hopes that donations can help them achieve those goals.

“That’s what we’ve always prided ourselves on, the people that we have as opposed to the things that other people have that they’re offering recruits,” Auriemma said to the attendees at the first night of the roadshow. “However, that can only go so far down the road. If we put the people that we have with the facilities and same things that other people have, as good as we are now, there’s no telling how good we can be, and that’s where you all come in.”

Football Looking To Rebound

Football has been a weak point for UConn for years, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the program’s attendance is weakening, too. With a stadium sitting at 40,642 capacity, average attendance hasn’t surpassed 30,000 since 2013, and last season hit a record low at 20,334. Not only was it the lowest average attendance in the past 10 years, but it was also a drop-off of over 6,000.

The program remained consistent with season ticket sales, recording 16,000 for the third year in a row, and totaled $2,655,691 in revenue from home games.

The team pulled in $2.66 million in revenue from its six home games last year, but after expenses only netted $815,691. Two games (Holy Cross and East Carolina) saw UConn operating with a net loss.

Much like men’s basketball, football is trying to rebuild a connection with its fan base. After going 11-26 in three seasons, the university fired former coach Bob Diaco and was forced to pay him over $5 million in severance. They brought back Randy Edsall, who coached UConn from 1998-2010, ending his first stint in Connecticut at 74-70. Since being rehired in 2016, the team had back-to-back 3-9 seasons.

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“When I was here before, I tried to build a program that would stand the test of time,” Edsall said in April. “And it didn't, because people didn't maintain what we had going on, or they couldn't duplicate it in terms of what you need to do here. Now, it's like you have to go back and start all over again. It's more than just the product on the field.”

With poor performance hindering ticket sales and attendance, UConn has taken to scheduling nonconference games with big payouts to increase revenue. Last season UConn earned $1.125 million by playing former Big East rival Boston College, who blocked UConn from joining the ACC in 2014, at Fenway Park. In 2021 they’ll play Clemson for over $1 million.

Aspiring To Growth

The athletic department is working tirelessly to increase attendance and revenue, looking for new ways to engage the state of Connecticut. Their efforts can be seen in the hiring of the Aspire Group in 2016, the seat backs being sold in the stadium and most recently the coaches roadshow, among other things.

Benedict hired the Aspire Group, a sports and entertainment firm that specializes in sales and marketing, to fill a void he noticed when he arrived in Storrs in 2016.

“Regardless of who you use, if part of what you do is sell tickets you have to have people out there selling,” Benedict said. “We didn’t have that when I first got here. There weren’t people making the calls and selling tickets on a daily basis. There wasn’t a group of people in place to do that. Now we have that.”

The marketing group has been able to increase group sales, which has allowed them to reach people who may not have attended UConn games if their group hadn’t purchased tickets. Bill Fagan, Aspire Group chief operating officer, said this is an area that can help the athletic department because it brings in new fans who could then turn into potential single-game or season ticket holders.

“There’s a building mentality and these are challenges we’re not unfamiliar with, but they do take time,” Fagan said. “Our approach is get people on the bus, get them out to one game. And the way that we’ve had the most success in doing that, and will continue to focus on this area, is group sales.”

The Aspire Group receives 20 percent of all new season ticket sales and 2.25 percent of season ticket renewals, as well as 15 percent of mini-plan sales. For example, the athletic department generated $393,768 in August 2017 and of that, the Aspire Group received $37,108.80, according to an invoice.

Outside of making personal connections with fans, the group has put a lot of focus on creating flexible options to fit fans’ needs, such as the flex package for football tickets. The option allows for fans to choose which six games they attend, allowing for last-minute changes of plans. The goal is to offer something for everyone, gaining more attendees by targeting a wider range of lifestyles.

While group ticket sales are up, single ticket sales and season ticket sales are not. Going into its third year at UConn, the Aspire Group is still optimistic about the future of the three teams it services. The change can’t and won’t happen overnight, though. If there is an increase to be seen in attendance and revenue for the Huskies, it will take time and continued effort.

“We’ve got a real challenge on a day-to-day basis in Storrs, which is trying to get the entire state of Connecticut to re-engage with the program,” Fagan said. “I know how much the program means to the state, and unfortunately what’s happened is the passion, in my opinion, hasn’t gone away but it’s not translating into people actually attending the live events in the arena and stadium.”

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