Commentary: Scared scheduling is hurting men’s college basketball — especially in Utah
Men’s college basketball has an attendance problem.
Ten years ago, an average of 5,000 fans attended each game in Division I across the country — home games, not counting neutral-site events and the NCAA Tournament.
That number has dropped consistently for the last 10 years (and more). The 2021-22 campaign saw an average of only 4,204 fans attend each Division I home game in person.
Looking at some teams’ schedules, though, might reveal men’s college basketball actually has a scheduling problem.
Here in the Beehive State, the University of Utah has built a nonconference schedule for the upcoming season notable only because of how thoroughly disinteresting it is. The Utes have scheduled just one of the other six Division I opponents in the state, a road game at BYU. They have two games in a multiteam event in Florida and bring TCU to Utah — but to Vivint Arena, not to the Huntsman Center.
The rest of Utah’s nonconference schedule is filled with seven home “buy” games against mid- or low-major opponents. These are one-time contests in which the home team pays the visitors to travel instead of giving them a return game at home.
Those seven home opponents are Long Island University, Cal State Bakersfield, Idaho State, Sam Houston, Jacksonville State, UTSA and second-year Division I team St. Thomas.
Second-year head coach Craig Smith said at the time of his hire in March 2021 that he wanted to improve Utah’s schedule and play in-state schools.
“I think it’s important to play the state schools,” Smith said in his introductory presser, as reported by The Salt Lake Tribune.
What changed? That’s unclear. Smith and Utah declined the opportunity to comment.
Robby Jackson, a West Jordan resident and lifelong Utah fan, said he attends about five or six Utes home games per season but would never consider buying season tickets with a nonconference schedule like this season’s. He doesn’t anticipate entering the Huntsman Center until Pac-12 Conference play begins.
He’s guessing many Utah men’s basketball fans are in the same boat.
“In the case of Craig Smith and Utah, you’re still trying to win back so much of the fanbase and have them interested again. A great way to do that is to have them play Utah State and Weber State and UVU,” Jackson said. “These coaches make it hard on themselves to get the fanbase interested when they schedule a lot of the teams that they do.”
The combined sum the University of Utah is paying those seven schools to travel to Salt Lake City: approximately $600,000, according to contracts obtained by the Standard-Examiner.
That’s a large sum when one alternative — scheduling home-and-home agreements — costs virtually nothing with no money changing hands. That’s also a lot of money to spend for games fans don’t want.
In early August, the “Runnin’ Hoops Podcast” tweeted, “wouldn’t it be nice if we got back to quality (home-and-homes) in college basketball?” and asked Utah fans on Twitter who they’d like to see play in the Huntsman Center. Many responses included Utah State, Weber State or both.
Weber State and Utah have played 41 times, with a nearly unbroken chain of games from 1975 until 2011. Even more disappointing is the history left behind between the Utes and Aggies — a whopping 223 previous meetings, dating back to 1908 and going nearly unbroken through 2010.
Utah has not scheduled Utah State or Weber State directly in 11 years, the same period in which the national per-game attendance average dropped from about 5,000 to almost 4,000. Attendance at Utah home games in that time frame has dropped 2,000 fans per game. The Utes played WSU and USU each once in the now-defunct Beehive Classic, both wins in what could be characterized as coerced meetings in a format Utah backed out of as soon as possible.
Utah’s last meeting directly scheduled with Weber State was an 80-51 road loss in 2011. Its last such game against Utah State was a 79-62 road loss in 2010. Against in-state foes with lesser history, Utah last played Utah Valley in 2016 and Southern Utah in 2015.
As this year’s slate of seven home games shows, it’s not an argument about quality of opponents. It’s a list of schools equal to or lesser than Weber State, and plainly lesser than Utah State. UVU or SUU could also provide similar or better games than those scheduled.
In recent years, Utah has scheduled games against other Big Sky opponents like Idaho State, Northern Arizona and Sacramento State. The Utes have also paid for thrilling Division I contests against Bethune Cookman (a 31-point win in 2021), Mississippi Valley State (three times since 2017, including a 94-point win in 2019), Maine, Florida A&M, Prairie View A&M (twice since 2016), Coppin State, Eastern Washington, Montana State, Northwestern State — literally anyone outside of Utah interested in clearing a check.
It’s no wonder Utah has installed curtains to block off the entire upper bowl of the Huntsman Center for basketball games.
“Last year, we played Fresno State. If you’re going to schedule someone from the Mountain West, why not just schedule Utah State? I know Utah fans would find that a more intriguing matchup,” Jackson said. “My sister and brother-in-law went to Weber State. That’s way more entertaining than trying to get juiced up for Sacramento State.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is partially to blame for the national average attendance drop from 4,601 in 2019-20 to 4,204 last season. But that’s ultimately only a fact that supports scheduling better home games to help rejuvenate the sport.
Though home-and-home series with Utah State and Weber State would save Utah a good chunk of money, it’s a pipe dream to hope for anything to change. Even so, WSU has offered (or asked, depending on your perspective) several times in the last decade to play Utah in Salt Lake City to no avail.
With BYU entering the Big 12 Conference next season, it’s also very likely the Cougars have played their last game at the Dee Events Center — though it seems more likely BYU will at least continue to bring Weber to Provo somewhat often.
Utah’s 2022-23 schedule happens to make a good case study for the broken men’s college basketball scheduling ecosystem where coaches avoid compelling games to play it safe. Other big schools with weak home slates this season include Oklahoma and Pitt, for example.
Teams from larger conferences often ignore smaller in-state opponents to avoid an alleged “lose-lose” proposition. This attitude persists despite the fact that, in the NET and quadrant system used by the NCAA to evaluate teams and select them for the national tournament, there’s a larger reward built into the formula for playing games on the road compared to games at home — even if you traveled to nearby mid-majors instead of flying in mid-majors to your place from across the country.
“Attendance is not great for a lot of teams in college basketball and a lot of that could be fixed by just having interesting games,” Jackson said. “Just schedule better and you’ll get a decent crowd.”
This doesn’t seem to be a problem in women’s college basketball. Utah plays at Weber State and BYU this season, hosts UVU and SUU in SLC while also bringing Oklahoma to the Huntsman Center. Defending national champ South Carolina hosts UCLA and Memphis while making a California road trip to play Stanford and Cal Poly.
Some big men’s programs are so chicken that they’ll verbally agree to games with smaller schools but wait to sign the contract until the smaller school finishes its recruiting class, just to see if that team ends up looking too good on paper. That’s how we got into September before some schools announced their schedules for this season.
A newly imagined, expanded resurrection of Bracket Busters games — a series of games nationwide that would pit like teams against each other in two nonconference games each February based on metrics — is now dead for the near future, CBS writer Matt Norlander reported.
“The reason: skittish coaches,” Norlander tweeted Wednesday night.
The idea, which would give teams across the country an additional chance to boost their overall resumes, came from WAC commissioner Brian Thornton.
“It’s honestly disappointing more people couldn’t see the bigger picture,” Thornton told Norlander. “How good this would have been for (college basketball). … So many people want to complain about the ‘system’ but so many were unwilling to take a chance. At this point there is no room to complain.”
MID-MAJORS ARE SCARED TOO
It’s not just a big-school problem. Mid-majors don’t help each other and play the same game of keep-away. They hesitate to schedule one another in fear of losing a road game and would rather schedule home games against lesser opponents, like non-Division I opponents and even those outside the NCAA altogether (think Maine Fort Kent, Yellowstone College or SAGU American Indian College).
That creates an ecosystem where few good games are even available.
This is why games like Long Beach State’s 2008 road trip to Ogden are now few and far between. LBSU took a 72-63 loss and thought gee, why would we ever go back to Weber State?
So this season, Weber State hosts just one Division I opponent, Utah Tech, during nonconference play — though to first-year head coach Eric Duft’s credit, WSU’s two non-Division I opponents this season at least hail from Division II and are not farther down the ladder.
UVU and SUU are noticeably absent from WSU’s nonconference slate, something Duft says is due to what the COVID-19 pandemic did to contracts.
“Everybody’s in the same boat with the contracts with COVID,” Duft said. “We had to push some games back, and your home and road games get flip-flopped. So this is kind of the last year for that. Last year it got flip-flopped where we had these home games. Now we’re on the road, it’s just kind of how it worked out. This is kind of the end of it, of the COVID mess. I think going forward, you’ll see us playing more in-state games.”
Weber State plays road games at BYU and Utah State this season after hosting both in Ogden last season.
One peculiarity of Weber State’s upcoming season: the Wildcats are being paid $67,500 to play California Baptist, a WAC team in only its fifth Division I season, for one game in Riverside instead of the Lancers simply returning the trip to Ogden next year.
Whatever the reasons, mid-majors seem to avoid each other. That also hurts the sport and the zeal of its supporters.
Luckily, every school has its diehard fans. At Weber State, one such person is Jeff Millard, raised as a BYU fan in North Ogden but who switched allegiances in the late 1990s upon his graduation from WSU. He now lives next to campus.
“The job I have, the income I have, I owe that to the education I got at Weber State,” Millard said. “I know there’s a lot of people in this area who tend to root for a school they never went to. It drives me crazy.”
Millard has attended men’s basketball games since about 1998, he says, and held season tickets since about 2010. He said he’ll do so no matter who is on the schedule but he’s passionate about ideas for how the school can increase attendance and boost grassroots support.
Fans like Millard are the foundation. But at some point, building up from that foundation will be necessary for Weber and other programs in the state, or else even the foundation will disappear due to age or other factors.
He agrees about at least reinstating one cornerstone of men’s basketball scheduling.
“The in-state rivalries, those games should happen. Utah State, BYU, University of Utah, we should be playing those teams,” Millard said. We haven’t played the University of Utah in a long time. That game should be scheduled.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Some of this constitutes the ramblings of a dreamer. There’s not much anyone can do to make a team like Utah play teams like Weber State or Utah State, for example, outside of those in charge listening to the disinterest of a dying fanbase.
But it might help if athletic directors got more involved. Almost all basketball schedules are entirely built by the coaching staff — usually one assistant leads the effort, sometimes with some help from the director of operations, and the head coach helps finish deals.
Small-school athletic directors could ask for basketball contests to be included in football contracts. Once upon a time, Weber State had such a deal with Wyoming, something the basketball Cowboys later backed out of about a decade ago.
Athletic directors could plainly issue directives to coaches that they are no longer to play non-Division I teams due to the effects on fan interest and attendance.
It could be fixed from the top down, and the Big Sky Conference has thrown its hat into that ring. The Big Sky recently unveiled a new strategic plan that, among other things, will require all men’s and women’s basketball teams to schedule at least three nonconference home games against Division I opponents each season.
The Big Sky is also pursuing partnerships with other conferences (could an interconference challenge be in the future?) and arranging game contracts for schools. For example, the Standard-Examiner has learned the Big Sky is arranging games between its basketball schools and the two Big West basketball programs — Cal Poly and UC Davis — that play football in the Big Sky. That’s why the Weber State men are playing at Cal Poly this season, and the Mustangs and UC Davis may both end up in Ogden next season.
It’s encouraging to see some in power are doing something to fix what has become a clear problem for the sport.
The NCAA could play an even larger role. It could prohibit Division I teams from playing more than one regular-season game against a non-Division I opponent. (It could even require that team be no lower than a Division II team.) This would open up a slew of dates for mid-major teams who would have no choice but to start playing each other.
Many teams could play compelling schedules again. In-person attendance would be likely to improve. Regional rivalries would be reignited or perhaps new ones created.
College athletes have been challenged in the transfer-portal era for running away from adversity or challenges. But what about coaches who continually duck games that are good for their team and its fans in favor of glorified scrimmages?
Outside of new rules or regulations — where the Big Sky Conference has now staked a claim, at least — it just might take coaches toughening up and doing what’s best for the sport.