With Kentucky Loss, SEC Fan Apathy For Basketball Exposed AgainPosted by David Changas on March 16th, 2013
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report while covering the SEC Tournament in Nashville this weekend.
You’ve heard the saying, “If you build it, they will come.” When it comes to Kentucky fans and the SEC Tournament, it goes more like this: “Wherever you hold it, they will come.” Everyone knows that the Wildcats have struggled all season with almost an entirely new team, and chances are, they will miss out on the NCAA Tournament. But if you happened to be in downtown Nashville Friday evening, you would think John Calipari’s team was a prime contender for the national championship. For Friday’s blowout loss to Vanderbilt, whose campus is two miles from Bridgestone Arena, the SEC Tournament drew its largest crowd of the weekend, and of the 18,000+ in attendance, at least 15,000 were part of the “Blue Mist,” the affectionate name given to Wildcat fans who take over whatever city the annual extravaganza is being held in. The Commodores would have felt more at home if the game had been in Rupp Arena, not that it was evident from their play.
Kentucky’s surprising ouster from this tournament was not only bad for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, which was looking forward to a St. Patrick’s Day weekend with thousands of Wildcat fans in town, but it once again brought to light an embarrassing issue for the SEC. Bridgestone Arena had plenty of empty seats for Saturday’s semifinals, and Sunday’s championship likely will be no different. Mike Slive has made more money for this league since he took over as commissioner in 2002 than you can count. He’s overseen expansion into Texas and Missouri, massive television contracts, and rumor has it that he’s on the verge of announcing the formation of the SEC Network, expected to launch in August 2014. But make no mistake: That money has been made because of football. It is the cash cow of college sports in every league, but there’s no question that the pigskin is more important to the SEC than any other. And there’s no clearer of example of that than the conference’s dominance of the BCS, which it was won seven consecutive times.
And while Slive has improved the league’s exposure in basketball – largely using football as the bait – it’s perplexing why so many of the league’s schools seem to care so little about the sport. Kentucky is the obvious exception to this, as the game at-large has no fan base that is more passionate than Big Blue Nation. But beyond that, no school in the league values basketball on anywhere near the same plane as football. Yes, there are schools that care about it. Tennessee has always had a good following, and the Volunteers have ranked in the top five in attendance nationally several times in the past few years. Arkansas, which has struggled for more than a decade since Nolan Richardson left, used to be a hoops haven, and the Hog fans showed up at SEC Tournaments in droves in their early years in the conference. Newcomer Missouri has good tradition, and obviously has a fan base that cares about Tigers basketball. When Vanderbilt is good, Memorial Gym in Nashville is a raucous environment.
But beyond those universities, it seems that apathy is the order of the day. Schools like Auburn, Georgia, and to a lesser extent Alabama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, seem to view basketball as nothing more than something to pass the time until spring football practice. Ask an Auburn fan if he’d rather make a run to the Sweet Sixteen or secure a top five recruiting class on college football’s National Signing Day, and you may be surprised by the answer. What is hard to understand is why SEC fans seem to have so much difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time. Turn on any sports talk show in the south and you’ll quickly realize that football is on the forefront of fans’ minds all year. You’re just as likely to hear an Alabama fan discussing the Crimson Tide’s two-deep in March as you are to hear a call about Anthony Grant’s team’s chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid. It seems reasonable to think that fans could balance their interests, and support their schools in both sports. It’s always been a running joke in SEC country that fans at “football schools” will not show up for basketball games until conference play starts in January. And while it seems absurd (what else are they doing when football games aren’t on?), it’s largely true.
While some of the league’s most apathetic schools have had only spurts of success through the years, making fan apathy a little more understandable, the one school whose fan base is hard to figure out is Florida. Since Billy Donovan arrived in Gainesville in 1996, the Gators have been to three Final Fours, five Elite Eights, and, of course, have won two national championships. Still, go to a Florida game and you’ll find the O’Connell Center less than full. Donovan is obviously not phased by it, as he has remained at the school for 17 seasons. But it’s hard to imagine many fan bases with that much success not being able to consistently sell out an arena that seats less than 12,000 people. And Florida fans don’t travel well, either, as their relatively small annual contingent that travels to the SEC Tournament is indicative of this. In Nashville this week, the Gators have no better than the fourth largest amount of fans. While Donovan and his program deserve better, their situation underlines the larger problem in the league.
One may suspect that administrations at the various universities have not put the proper resources into basketball to allow it to flourish at schools where it has traditionally played second fiddle to football, and while the issue is complex, that is a logical conclusion. Coaches’ salaries may be part of the problem, but Donovan and John Calipari are among the nation’s highest-paid, and Alabama’s Anthony Grant, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Arkansas’s Mike Anderson, and Missouri’s Frank Haith are all known to earn salaries in the $2 million range. But there is more to supporting a strong basketball program than shelling out money for a coach. Facilities have to be upgraded (several schools in the league play in old gyms that underscore those universities’ lack of dedication to the sport), support staff has to be strengthened, and recruiting budgets have to be increased. The dedication schools in the SEC have to football is apparent, but the same commitment to basketball doesn’t exist in many cases. Otherwise, the league wouldn’t be facing a situation where potentially as few as two, and at most four, of its 14 teams will earn NCAA Tournament bids this season.
Certainly, conference strength runs in cycles – even the vaunted ACC has struggled with balance and depth in the past few years – but the issue in the SEC is deeper than a cyclical problem. If Kentucky were not carrying the banner for the league, there would be little to be proud of, and the SEC Tournament would struggle to survive. Somehow, Slive has to work to emphasize the importance of this other revenue-producing sport to his members, but, more importantly, the culture in the SEC has to change with respect to basketball. Every March, the league should be able to showcase its wares, but when Big Blue Nation isn’t around, the lack of interest is apparent. And on Saturday in Nashville, that apathy was well on display. As the league’s pockets get deeper, its dedication to basketball must improve if it wants to be taken seriously outside of the months of September to Janaury.