Courtesy of UK Athletics
Attendance numbers are down at Rupp Arena this season. John Calipari was asked about it after the Wildcats' game Sunday night.

Kentucky basketball: Attendance down at Rupp Arena, but why?

Joe Mussatto

We tackle the best question asked by Kentucky fans every day. If you’d like to submit a question, tweet to Kyle Tucker here and Joe Mussatto here. Look for the Question of the Day every Monday through Friday. 

Kentucky led the nation in college basketball attendance last season with an average of 23,461 fans per game at Rupp Arena. It was the 19th time in the last 22 seasons that Kentucky led the country in average home attendance.

Since Rupp Arena opened for the 1976-77 season, Kentucky has ranked first or second in average home attendance every season, according to a press release.

And that brings us to the Kentucky Question of the Day: Why is attendance at Rupp Arena down this season through six home games?

Kentucky is averaging 20,092 fans per game at Rupp Arena this season. That’s 3,369 fewer fans on average per game compared to last season’s final numbers.

But comparing this early-season slate to an entire schedule from last season isn’t a great indicator considering that SEC games will likely draw bigger crowds. So let’s compare Kentucky’s first five home games from the last two seasons. We won’t extend this out to six games because Kentucky’s sixth game last season was against UCLA compared to Illinois-Chicago this season.

First five home games, 2016

  • Stephen F. Austin: 22,683
  • Canisius: 22,009
  • Duquesne: 21,327
  • Cleveland State: 22,441
  • Tennessee-Martin: 23,324

First five home games ,2017

  • Utah Valley: 19,807
  • Vermont: 20,174
  • East Tennessee State: 20,168
  • Troy: 19,548
  • Fort Wayne: 20,645

The overall numbers show that Kentucky’s attendance numbers are down 11,000 total with about 2,300 fewer people per game. 

Some context is needed. Kentucky’s attendance numbers are sure to increase, but assume that the current 20,092 average holds for the rest of the season. That still would’ve been fourth-most in the country last season.

After Kentucky’s 107-73 win against Illinois-Chicago on Sunday evening, Calipari was asked about the smaller crowds.

“Our attendance is down and it’s really sad because we’re No. 1 in the country,” Calipari deadpanned.

“It’s kind of like you guys saying to me, ‘Cal, you only won by 22, can you tell me what’s wrong with the Cats?’ I think people will jump in and do it. And some of it is students, Sunday night. We have a large student section and I think they’re trying to do something with some of the student tickets. But I get it. I mean there’s some games I don’t feel like coming and I got to come here anyway, geez.”

The subpar lineup of opponents might be one reason behind the attendance drop, but the schedule is no worse this season compared to last season.

Every game is televised and the backless bleachers of the upper level likely don’t match the comfort of a couch. But again, that hasn’t changed.

The student section known as the “Eruption Zone” hasn’t been immune to the attendance decline. Several rows were empty just before tipoff against Vermont on Nov. 12.

Price could be a factor behind the drop in attendance. Per-game prices increased $5 this season for every ticket. It was the first ticket-price increase in two years. Student tickets increased from $5 to $10. It was the first price change for student tickets since the 1990s.

The on-court product is still among the best in the nation as the Wildcats are coming off an Elite Eight appearance. Kentucky, ranked No. 7, is off to a 6-1 start this season.

But with a starting five of all freshmen who are still trying to figure things out, Kentucky fans could also be suffering from one-and-done fatigue.

Whatever the case, Kentucky is still likely to finish the season ranked No. 1 in attendance.

Top 10 college basketball average attendance (2016-17)

1. Kentucky: 23,461

2. Syracuse: 21,181

3. Louisville: 20,846

4. North Carolina: 18,067

5. Creighton: 17,412

6. Wisconsin: 17,286

7. Maryland: 16,628

8. Kansas: 16,395

9. Indiana: 16,363

10. North Carolina State: 15,906