Tuesday, January 30, 2018

John Royal's (last) reflection on UH basketball attendance

In his final column for the Houston Press, John Royal offers a suggestion to combat poor attendance at UH basketball games:
The Houston Cougars whine about the lack of fans that come out for basketball games. The low attendance is disappointing, of course, because this current UH basketball team is perhaps the most talented team since Pat Foster was head coach. But damn it, you have to give fans a reason to come out and watch the team.
Houstonians are a fickle group (for every team but the Texans). The Cougars have to start scheduling some big names schools so that the team can draw some attention. It’s nice to win games, but when your home schedule consists of McNeese, University of Incarnate Word, New Orleans, Fairfield, and Prairie View, then nobody is going to care. Especially when this is what the UH non-conference home schedule looks like year after year after year. Ooh, is that Arkansas on the schedule? When was the last time Arkansas was relevant? Rice usually plays a tougher non-conference than the Cougars, and TSU definitely plays a more difficult schedule. So you want fans, play a schedule worthy of fans showing up.
I might quibble with him about Arkansas not being relevant; they're not the powerhouse they were under Nolan Richardson but they still made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament two out of the last three years (and Houston has a history with the Razorbacks going back to the SWC days that always draws fans). I might also point out that some of the schools on the home schedule - Incarnate Word, McNeese, Prairie View - are likely due to convenience of proximity and minimized travel costs more than anything else. But overall, Royal has a point about weak out-of-conference schedules that do not interest or motivate local fans.

Scheduling a slate of weak out-of-conference opponents might have been a necessary evil back when the UH hoops program was struggling and getting scrub schools on the schedule was the only way to guarantee wins. But now that the team has been doing better under Kelvin Sampson, it's probably time to do away with that scheduling philosophy, and start putting together out-of-conference slates that are beefier and more compelling.

That being said, the solution is not as easy as the Athletics Director simply picking up the phone and getting Duke, Kansas and Villanova to come to town. The big-time schools have scheduling priorities of their own; many have no interest whatsoever in coming to Houston, and those that are interested likely want hefty guaranteed payouts and return games. Scrub programs will never disappear from the schedule entirely; all programs need easy, confidence-building wins, and as I mentioned before proximity and travel costs also play a factor. Finally, it's not good practice for any program to rely on the names and reputations of their opponents to draw fans. A good basketball program needs to draw fans the old-fashioned way, which is by being a good, relevant program that people want to see.

And therein lies the problem: attendance (or lack thereof) at UH basketball games has been a longstanding problem, and a stronger out-of-conference schedule will, by itself, not fix it. The Cougars need to become relevant in the college basketball world again. This is a program that hasn't won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 1984, when they were still Phi Slama Jama. Hell, the team has only even been to the Big Dance once in the last quarter century! The reason the Cougar basketball team struggles with putting fans in seats is because the program has been a non-factor on the national stage for decades. In a fickle, fair-weather, front-runner sports town like Houston, that's a killer.

So yes, upgrade the out-of-conference schedule. And yes, improve the facilities. Both of those things will give attendance a boost. But the biggest way to boost attendance is to win; specifically, win games in the NCAA Tournament. There's a decent chance the Coogs will go dancing in March. But there's a lot of basketball yet to play, and the Cougars need to find a way to get past the opening round (for the first time in over three decades) if they're going to capture the attention of local fans.

Finally, John Royal does not mention in his column why he's leaving the Press, but I can't help if his departure is yet another nail in the now-online-only alt-weekly's coffin.

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