An interesting thing is happening in the heart of Big Blue Nation. As college football is heading to its bowl season conclusion, basketball is just getting started, but unlike a normal season something is missing. Approximately 3,000 people to be exact, as attendance is down at Rupp Arena in Lexington, the cathedral of Big Blue Nation.
Haters, don’t get overzealous in trying to sound the death knell on these Wildcats. Kentucky is the reigning NCAA attendance champion, averaging 23,361 per game last year. That’s about 400,000 paying customers per season, and they been doing that for a while.
But through the first six games this season the Wildcats are averaging 20,092 fans per home game, down from last season when Kentucky drew an average of 23,462 for each contest at Rupp.
There are several plausible excuses. Much of this early season competition is less than compelling, and for Saturday games it’s tough to beat some of the pivotal college football match-ups featured late this season.
A more cynical take on this abnormality would be this is John Calipari’s ninth season at the University of Kentucky, and each year essentially a different squad is assembled, and fans are a tad weary of learning all the new names. No doubt if this is part of the problem, it’s an embarrassment of riches. To Calipari’s credit, each year he brings in a top ranked recruiting class. His results are hard to argue with, as the Cats routinely lead the SEC, advance in the NCAA often to the Final Eight and beyond – but winning titles is tough, and Calipari has only gotten that done once.
The 2017-2018 Wildcats are especially young, perhaps the youngest by average age to ever suit up, especially for a major college program. Only three sophomores of consequence remain on this squad from the previous year. This is what serves as upperclassmen at Kentucky under Calipari.
In the age of one-and-done players that dominates college basketball, it’s a bit of a knock to be a junior or senior that is still kicking around a college program. It sends a message that a player isn’t capable of playing at the next level, at least not as an impact player.
Now I’m no Duke fan, but Coach Mike Krzyzewski has a senior like Grayson Allen on his roster. Sure Allen has suffered from a propensity to trip opposing players at times, but the kid is a gamer, will have gone to the NCAA tournament four seasons straight, won a title and can shoot the hell out of the deep ball. Allen is an invaluable asset when bringing in a new batch of one-and-doners, especially when conference tournament time and the NCAAs arrive.
That’s where Kentucky is clearly susceptible. When the going gets tough, all these top-flight freshmen year in and year out have no reference point for the intensity level of competition other than high school, where they could dominate. That doesn’t work in March often. Even regular season work fails the replicate the rigors of what will come in second round NCAA games and beyond. Each game becomes a whole new learning endeavor, and since most of these kids will never see a sophomore year, really they are only so invested in the program.
From a fan standpoint it’s like watching the same movie again for the umpteenth viewing. These new kids show up and no none knows who they are. It will take the first third to half the season just for Calipari to get the kids coached up for generic competition, meaning the games are less than fantastic to view.
As tournament time approaches a foreboding sets in that eventually the young kitty kats are going to run into a more experienced team and get schooled. Don’t get me wrong, Calipari’s teams are infinitely competitive. While they may be young, the argument goes, Cal’s kids have unlimited potential. This is true. See the 2012 Cats. But Darius Miller was a key senior contributor and leader on that championship squad.
Winning a championship or advancing to a championship game, the Elite Eight or the Final Four, often comes down to a play or two, and in those clutch moments Cal’s freshman-dominated squads have faltered, like against that Wisconsin team in the 2015 Final Four or North Carolina in last year’s Elite Eight matchup. This year there are several of those kinds of teams, such as Duke, Michigan State and Kansas to name a few.
This begins to contribute to fatigue, as some folks sit out these early season games. Few returning players leave fans no opportunity to invest themselves in favorite players to watch develop. Additionally, it’s not cheap going to see a UK game, parking is a hassle, there are metal detectors to navigate and the quality of watching from home keeps improving.
This is no knock on the current batch of Wildcats. Kevin Knox, PJ Washington and the rest of the new Cats will rack up a slew of gaudy wins this season and who knows where they might end up come March. I wouldn’t worry about the attendance dip. I’m betting Cal’s right, it will hop back to its NCAA-leading average before too long, and Big Blue Nation will be there in force behind the Cats come March.