Rising attendance at men’s basketball games is making a statement in wake of budget cuts

Big Red urges the crowd to rise to its feet in support of WKU during the second half of WKU’s game vs MTSU in Diddle Arena. 

Tyler Eaton

On Saturday, Jan. 20, Diddle Arena hosted a sell-out crowd that played witness to a battle for Conference USA supremacy between WKU’s men’s basketball team and Middle Tennessee State. 

WKU next plays host to Marshall on Saturday in a game that, according to WKU’s men’s basketball Twitter, is only 100 tickets away from being another sell out. 

This would be the first back-to-back sellout since the 2005-2006 season, in which the team, led by future NBA player Courtney Lee, finished first in the Sun Belt Conference in the regular season. 

In spite of the impending budget cuts facing the WKU athletics program, the renewed success of WKU basketball has begun to catch administration’s attention, especially that of athletic director Todd Stewart. 

“In the arena, you have what we have tonight,” Stewart told the Herald before  the MTSU game. “You have a lot of people coming together both in Bowling Green and on our campus.” 

Last season, the average attendance for a WKU men’s basketball home game was 3,915. This season, that number has jumped to 4,971 through the team’s first 11 home games. 

It is not unfathomable to predict that the average attendance will rise to over 5,000 by the time the regular season is over, especially with the Marshall game nearing a sell out. 

All of this comes as a surprise considering everything currently surrounding the athletics program, and the school as a whole. 

Per the 2017 fact book on WKU’s website, full time enrollment has been decreasing steadily from 2012 to 2015, but actually saw a slight increase in the fall of 2016. 

This increase could be attributed to a number of factors, but one easy explanation could be the national exposure WKU is gaining from not only being a member of C-USA, but being a highly successful one.

According to that same fact book, in WKU’s first three years in C-USA, they accumulated 21 total conference championships. It is not rare for schools to see increases in attendance and revenue following success in sports. 

Examples of this include other mid-major programs such as Boise State, Wichita State, Gonzaga, Butler and Central Florida. These schools are national prescences because of their sports programs, specifically football for Boise State and basketball for the latter three. 

{{tncms-inline account=”Todd Stewart” html=”<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Athletics are the front porch of a university, and a successful athletics program will positively impact its university in numerous ways. <a href="https://t.co/jieRVXuoEF">https://t.co/jieRVXuoEF</a></p>— Todd Stewart (@ToddStewartWKU) <a href="https://twitter.com/ToddStewartWKU/status/951271179481907203?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 11, 2018</a></blockquote>” id=”https://twitter.com/ToddStewartWKU/status/951271179481907203″ type=”twitter”}}

Central Florida has seen a dramatic short-term rise in enrollment following an undefeated football season in which the university’s president claimed a national title after the Golden Knights defeated Auburn in the Peach Bowl, finishing the season with a 13-0 record.   

President Timothy Caboni understands that the same could happen for WKU, especially with the recent success of the athletics department on the whole at the conference and national level. 

We need to leverage athletics growth and use that to drive applications and enrollment,” Caboni said. “At the same time, we need to make sure that every penny we spend as an institution in every unit of the institution is being done so with the utmost care.” 

If the university’s two biggest problems at the moment are attracting students and a growing deficit, neglecting the athletics program for the sake of saving or redistributing finances elsewhere may not be the ideal move to make. 

“I think the exposure that you get when you’re successful, from television, all the different media, being in bowl games, being in NCAA tournaments, you really can’t put a price tag on the value of that,” Stewart said. “That’s what’s unique about athletics. The ability to bring people together unlike any other program, and the ability to get exposure nationwide.”