CARBONDALE — SIU's men's basketball team lost three players to potentially season-ending injuries and has a seven-man rotation, but enters today's afternoon contest against Bradley tied for second place in the Missouri Valley Conference at 8-5.
Even more surprising, the Salukis have won 11 of 13 home games with the smallest crowds in 20 years. SIU (16-10, 8-5 MVC) averaged 3,717 fans per game in its first 13 home games this season, just over 750 less per game than last season, entering today's 3 p.m. game against Bradley (17-9, 7-6). The Salukis haven't averaged under 4,000 fans per home game since 1997-98 (3,345 fans per game), Rich Herrin's last season as coach.
Herrin's last squad finished 14-16 overall and 8-10 in the Valley (eighth place). Two games back of league leader Loyola (21-5, 11-3), this year's squad is battling for its highest Valley finish since winning the regular-season title in 2007.
"You wanna know why I think attendance is down? Right here (holds up another reporter's cell phone). You don't have to go to a game. You can watch it electronically, through social media," SIU coach Barry Hinson said, noting that nearly every MVC game is now available on ESPN3. "It's down across the country."
Indeed, SIU is not alone. With about three weeks left in the regular season, nine of the top 10 Division I programs in attendance in 2017 were down entering the weekend, including blue bloods like Kentucky, Syracuse, Louisville, Kansas and Indiana. Of the top 10 from last season, only North Carolina, which was fourth last season, was up in average attendance this year.
Last season, average attendance in Division I men's basketball dropped by an average of 111 fans per game, according to the NCAA. Home attendance in Division II (minus-38 fans per game) and Division III (minus-26) were also down nationally.
With Wichita State gone — the Shockers were the only Valley school to average more than 10,000 fans a year the last five years — attendance in the MVC is down nearly 1,000 fans per game to 3,817. Attendance is also down when you only consider the non-Wichita State and Creighton programs. In 2012-13, everyone but Wichita State and Creighton, collectively, averaged 5,277 fans per game. Total attendance is down, on average, at those schools for the fifth straight year this year.
SIU, Bradley, Evansville, Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Valparaiso are all averaging less fans at home than they did last season. Loyola, off to its best start in years, is averaging 2,232 fans per game, nearly 400 more than last season. That's with Gentile Arena, the smallest men's basketball host site in the league, only holding 4,963.
Drake, Indiana State and Missouri State were also up slightly.
Carver Arena in Peoria seats 11,442 fans, the most in the Valley.
Other factors influence attendance, aside from the games airing on ESPN3, which can be accessed on most mobile phones and smart TVs. SIU has hosted four games on Sunday afternoons, not typically a great time for families. The Salukis had only two Saturday night conference games, widely considered one of the best times to host, and drew their season-high last weekend against Valparaiso. After offering students free pizza, free T-shirts, a live DJ and the ability to play Mario Kart on the big scoreboard before the game, SIU drew a season-best crowd of 5,694 fans for its 65-59 victory.
Today, the Salukis are offering students Mario Kart, free beads and masks for a Mardi Gras party and free cookies to get them out on a Sunday afternoon. The men's game follows an 11:30 a.m. tipoff between the Saluki women (12-11, 7-5) and Bradley (11-12, 5-7).