By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) When it comes to numbers, I don’t trust the city of Chicago.
And the more numbers that come out regarding DePaul University’s proposed $173 million basketball arena near McCormick Place, the less I find myself trusting them.
Earlier this month, I questioned just how much the city and school could realistically expect to secure for corporate naming rights, as well as concerns about just who will cover overruns for a facility that will use millions of dollars in tax money to help build a venue that’s intended to primarily benefit a private school.
The project’s numbers seemed iffy.
And now its math looks downright fuzzy.
On Wednesday, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that DePaul’s men’s basketball team would have to more than triple its annual attendance to meet the estimates made by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (McPier) for the new event center.
“Attendance at Blue Demons home games in suburban Rosemont has averaged around 2,900 over the past three years, according to Allstate Arena ticket records obtained by Crain’s,” wrote columnist Danny Ecker. “That’s about 35 percent of the school’s reported numbers and 30 percent of what McPier officials are projecting for the new arena.”
According to Ecker, only 41,771 actual fans attended DePaul home games the past three seasons instead of the 127,020 “tickets sold” that the school reported. That’s an average far less than the 7,398 fans publicly claimed. Beyond that, Ecker reported the Ticketmaster scan system, which tracks exactly how many people came inside Allstate Arena, logged an even lower number: 2,610 per game.
DePaul responded to the report by arguing that Crain’s studied only the last three years, whereas the school’s feasibility study also encompassed 1999-2005 when DePaul had winning seasons and reached an NCAA Tournament.
That may be so, but it still doesn’t explain the sketchy numbers for the past three years. Nor does it seem very wise to base financial projections involving tax money on the assumption that DePaul will return to basketball glory any time soon, even with a new arena. Over the past three seasons, the Blue Demons have gone 30-55 overall, including 6-48 in the Big East Conference.
Crain’s also reported that the McPier report projects an average attendance of 9,500 at DePaul men’s games in the 10,000 seat arena, or 152,000 total over 16 games.
That’s 95 percent capacity every night for a program that hasn’t come close to such consistent numbers in Rosemont. And if that number seems awfully lofty for almost any school, it’s because it probably is. As a point of comparison, the University of Illinois, which boasts a much larger fan base and student enrollment than DePaul, has enjoyed 100 percent capacity only 224 times in 50 years of basketball at the 16,618-seat State Farm Center.
That’s an average of 4.5 sellouts a season over five decades.
Also not to be lost is this: DePaul very well might enjoy increased interest among city dwellers by playing in Chicago, but one has to assume a move to the city will also alienate a significant portion of the suburban fan base the school has developed over the past three decades in Rosemont. Not all those ticket buyers will be able to also attend every game downtown.
The point is, sellouts – or near ones – simply don’t come along every night. And it’s extremely risky to expect them to or to fudge game attendance numbers, especially when you’re playing with public money.
So, let’s hope that in the end it isn’t the taxpayers who end up getting sold out.
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.