By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) With an 11-0 record and a Top 10 ranking, Illinois basketball appears to be back. But the Illinois basketball crowds? Well, they’re not.
Not yet, at least.
On Tuesday night for the Illini’s game against Norfolk State, the crowd at Assembly Hall in Champaign topped 14,000 for the third time in six games. But that number still falls well short of the 16,618 that the arena can hold – and which it used to hold regularly.
These days, however, despite the Illini’s hot start under first-year coach John Groce, there are plenty of good seats available at Assembly Hall for anyone to purchase. That includes rival fans.
As the Champaign News-Gazette’s Loren Tate pointed out in a column this week, “If Illinoisans don’t grab the 2,000 tickets currently remaining for IU on Feb. 7 (the only game between the two), look for the nearby Hoosiers to pick them up.”
“We’d like to keep the red out of the building,” Illinois ticket manager Jason Heggemeyer told Tate. “We have some good momentum going. We sold 1,500 tickets in the first 24 hours this week for our January special (three games for $49).”
Two of those tickets were bought by yours truly. And purchasing them helped me understand why I believe that Illini basketball tickets aren’t selling like hotcakes among a fan base that’s been absolutely starved for success.
The reason? They’re too dang expensive.
Despite living in Chicago, I actually was a season ticket holder for Illinois basketball during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. I made it down to most games then, but I no longer have the time to roadtrip to Champaign often enough to make buying season tickets worthwhile. But this week, I was planning to purchase two tickets to the Illini game vs. Michigan on Sunday, Jan. 27, until I realized how much they cost.
Two “C” section tickets near the top row of spacious Assembly Hall were going to set me back $100. Each ticket cost $40 and then included an additional $4 fee, as well as a $12 order charge. For anyone who has watched a basketball game perched high above the court in the top rows of the Hall knows that price tag is far too much for those seats – even if the foe is the nationally-ranked Wolverines.
Later in the afternoon, however, I received an email from Illinois offering their holiday ticket package, which included “C” section tickets to the Minnesota, Northwestern and Michigan games for $50. At that price, I was sold.
If the smallish crowds for Illinois do persist throughout the season even if the Illini continue to exist high in the national rankings, I don’t think it’s because of the fans’ lack of enthusiasm about the team. Rather, I think it’s probably because of their lack of funds.
Season tickets for Illinois this year actually were quite reasonable: 19 games (including exhibitions) for $399 ($417.50 with fees), which comes out to about $22 per game. However, many Illini fans didn’t purchase season tickets this season. Understandably, they were in wait-and-see mode for a team with a new coach and also likely gun shy on committing the cash following string of disappointing basketball (and football) seasons.
Now, it’s likely too pricey for many fans to purchase single game tickets. Some games, such as the weeknight contests against Northwestern and Penn State, are being sold for $30. But with fees, a single “C” section ticket still ends up being $46.
Meanwhile, one ticket to the game vs. Nebraska on Sunday, March 2, will end up costing you a whopping $56 since every purchase carries the same $12 order charge, regardless of the number of tickets you’re buying.
Again, that’s just too much. And I suspect that Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas & Co. have been hoping to recoup some of the revenue lost through poor football ticket sales by overcharging for Illini basketball tickets. That’s not really fair to fans. And it’s not really fair to the Illini basketball team either, which deserves to play in front of big crowds at home.
Now, I have little doubt that Illinois fans will show up again in force to support a top-level basketball team that knows how to play basketball – the fan base has proven historically to be as passionate as any. But those big crowds probably won’t happen until more season tickets are sold again. That isn’t happening this season.
However, by offering more reasonably priced “ticket specials” during the Big Ten season, Illinois could probably help fill more seats. And, in turn, help better support its Top 10 basketball team.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.