GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While the Florida men’s basketball team didn’t show the defensive focus coach Mike White wanted to see last Saturday against Vanderbilt, and while the Gators stumbled at home for the first time all season, they did remain consistent in one regard.
The game drew yet another sellout crowd to Florida’s newly-renovated and reopened Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center — the fourth packed house in five games so far inside the building.
Florida, which only recorded one sellout all of last season, has also maxed out on ticket sales for its upcoming home tilts with Kentucky and Texas A&M. Overall the program has shown the second-largest attendance growth by percentage among SEC teams this season.
“I wish we could have rewarded them a little more,” White said, still frustrated by that 68-66 loss Saturday. “Our crowds have been incredible.”
For the most part, though, the Gators (14-5, 5-2 SEC) have done their part on the court. They had climbed as high as No. 19 in the AP poll before a recent two-game losing skid, and the impressive renovation to the arena surely helps as well.
With an average home attendance of 10,564, the Gators have seen an increase of 9.06 percent from their 2015-16 average of 9,686. That’s with only five home games so far, which may skew the numbers a bit as there were no early-season tune-up tests against overmatched non-conference foes.
Aside from Little Rock, which sold out as the Gators’ first game back in the gym, the rest have been conference clashes.
— Gators M-Basketball (@GatorsMBK) January 24, 2017
But the numbers are still impressive, especially when only five of the SEC’s 14 teams can boast an improvement in home attendance so far this season.
Surprisingly, Missouri has made the largest leap, boosting its reported average home draw by 15.81 percent (from 6,295 in 17 games last season to 7,290 in 11 games so far this season) despite ranking last in the league standings. However, based reports from the journalists who cover Missouri, this seems like a curious outlier.
The others seeing attendance bumps are Mississippi State (7,222 fans per home game, up 9.04 percent), South Carolina (12,641, 5.40 percent) and Arkansas (15,171, 1.96 percent).
The rest of the league, meanwhile, has seen a dip to varying degrees.
Granted, those numbers should increase as teams close out the conference slate and balance out some of the thinner numbers from early-season non-conference matchups and games over winter break when students ween’t in school.
And the difference is negligible at places like Kentucky (23,100 per home game, down from 23,362 last season) and Auburn (7,958/8,216), but more than a third of the league has seen percentage drops of 10 percent or more in reported home attendance.
Those being LSU (37.25 percent drop from 11,383 to 7,143), which hosts Florida on Wednesday night; Vanderbilt (13.84 percent drop from 11,135 to 9,594); Ole Miss (13.00 percent drop from 7,993 to 6,954); Texas A&M (12.93 percent drop from 8,956 to 7,798); and Alabama (12.22 percent drop from 13,110 to 11,508).
Those are easily tied to performance and intrigue as LSU lost No. 1 NBA Draft pick Ben Simmons and is 1-6 in SEC play, Vanderbilt is a middling 9-11 overall and 3-5 in the league, Ole Miss is 12-7/3-4 and Texas A&M is 10-8/2-5. Alabama, meanwhile, is off to a solid 4-2 start in league play and 11-7 overall.
Again, those numbers could change over the final month of the season, but it’s interesting data that is surely giving at least a few SEC athletic directors some consternation.
According to data collected by the NCAA, three SEC teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in attendance last season — No. 1 Kentucky, No. 12 Arkansas and No. 17 Tennessee.
The Gators don’t have the arena capacity to crack that list, but they are pleased with the fan support they’re receiving. After Florida’s 80-76 overtime win over Georgia on Jan. 14, in particular, White and guard Canyon Barry both made a point to highlight the impact of the crowd.
Meanwhile, White said this week that from his perspective at least, the league is trending in a positive direction.
”We haven’t been through it all the way yet of course, but you’ve got a lot of pride and tradition and history in this league. I’m biased, of course, but I think nationally it’s an underrated league with regard to basketball,” he said. “I think it’s perceived as the best football league, of course, rightfully so, and there’s a huge drop off. And I don’t see that. I think that it’s continuing to rebuild. I think there’s been years where it’s been perceived as a higher-level league, again rightfully so, but I think we’re on our way back.
“We’ve got some beautiful arenas in our league, we’ve got some great crowds in our league and we’ve played at a few already. I don’t think there will be an exception (at LSU).”