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The Attendance Question

Written by Craig Meyer on .

The Field of Dreams quote of "If you build it, he will come," has a use beyond a man trying to summon dead baseball players to an Iowa cornfield: it is referenced at an absurdly-high rate when explaining attendance woes or successes in sports. The logic is pretty simple: if a team is not very good, you're not likely to draw the same kind of crowd you would with a more talented group.

In Robert Morris' case, it reads more like a rhetorical question. Something has been built, but will they come?

This week, the NCAA released attendance figures for the 345 Division I basketball teams from the 2012-13 season, with all of the usual suspects (Kentucky, Syracuse, Louisville) on the top of the list. For the sake of this blog, it also included data for Robert Morris and other teams in the NEC.

The findings were pretty standard in that many of the top teams (LIU Brooklyn, Wagner) had some of the best attendance figures while some of the league's bottom dwellers (Saint Francis (PA), Fairleigh Dickinson) struggled to bring out a crowd.

There was one notable exception to this trend and that was the Colonials, who won the conference's regular season championship, but had only the eighth-best attendance in the 12-team league.

  Average attendance % capacity 2012-13 record
LIU Brooklyn 2,519 83.97 20-14
Monmouth 1,908 46.54 10-21
Central Conn. State 1,905 71.78 13-17
Quinnipiac 1,837 51.46 15-16
Bryant 1,525 58.65 19-12
Wagner 1,507 71.76 19-12
Mount St. Mary's 1,227 35.06 18-14
Robert Morris 1,196 39.14 24-11
Saint Francis (PA) 959 27.4 5-24
Sacred Heart 788 38.22 9-20
St. Francis (NY) 582 48.5 12-18
Fairleigh Dickinson 574 19.13 7-24

Anyone that has caught a game at the Sewall Center knows that the facility is usually always far from full during the regular season, but these attendance numbers show what kind of disparity exists, especially given how successful the team has been not only last season, but over the past 6-7 years. Even as far as percentage of the arena's capacity goes, the Colonials are still eighth in the conference.

I guess there are a slew of reasons for this. Most obviously, it's not only a college team in a pro sports town, but the school is pretty far down the collegiate pecking order, well behind Pitt, but also trailing schools like Penn State, West Virginia and Duquesne (more or less) in terms of local interest. It's also a school which still has a sizable portion of students that are considered commuters, a.k.a those that are less likely to trek back to campus for a basketball game.

Let's also not forget it's a big city with a lot of other options beyond a basketball game. For example, my alma mater, Boston University, routinely averages less than 1,000 fans per game even though they've been one of the best teams in their conference over the last decade. Then again, BU is an easy walk from downtown Boston while Robert Morris is at least a 20-minute drive from many of Pittsburgh's entertainment options. Not exactly identical situations.

Success is often the easiest way to drum up attendance and create some sort of interest, but that simply hasn't been the case for the Colonials. Perhaps the NIT win over Kentucky can be some kind of spark heading into the 2013-14 season, but as of now, this is still a program that is looking to figure out an answer to what seems like a pretty basic formula.

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