As Ole Miss and South Carolina took the court for the opener of the 2005 SEC Men's Basketball Tournament, vast expanses of green seats yawned everywhere the eye could see, and not just behind the curtain cordoning off most of the vast, multipurpose facility so a basketball tournament could visit this week.
Those who were here – 12,534 strong – weren't exactly enthused by the afternoon's entertainment either. It was a middling contest between two mediocre teams, which will be remembered only for the three-pointer turned into a two that gave the Rebels a 53-52 victory and a temporary reprieve before they're likely bounced by Alabama this afternoon.
By Thursday evening, the crowds had improved – thanks to the presence of Arkansas and Tennessee (and, of course, the legions of Kentucky fans waiting for their team's debut tonight), but the atmosphere was still, well, substandard.
If you're looking for blame, go no further than downtown Birmingham and the SEC offices.
The fine folks at the Southeastern Conference are the ones who have chained a fine basketball tournament to a life mostly spent in cavernous, lifeless places like the Georgia Dome and its brethren across the Southeast.
Domes – excuse me, multipurpose facilities – were not built for basketball. They're fine for huge events like the Final Four and, perhaps, the odd regional final, but they suck the life out of your average conference tournament.
Acoustics are terrible. Seats are plentiful. Excitement, especially for early-round games, is minimal. Fans have noticed, and they've voted with their pocketbooks.
In 1995, the first time this tournament was held at the Georgia Dome, record-smashing crowds flowed in – 250,301 fans for the week. That's an average of 23,363 per session, also a record.
Since then, the Georgia Dome's SEC numbers have steadily dropped – from 225,587 in 1999 to 208,785 in 2000, to 198,729 in 2002 and 195,630 in 2004. And that doesn't include 2003's disappointing sojourn to the Louisiana Superdome, where 166,410 fans showed up.
Oddly, the best showing of the past four years came at Nashville's Gaylord Center – a bona fide arena – which will also host next year's event. In 2001, 203,489 fans poured into the Music City.
That's hardly surprising. Arenas like the Gaylord Center or Memphis' FedEx Forum have better acoustics, ambiance and aura than cavernous domes. Fans appreciate this. They're human. They want to have fun. Yell, scream, and not hear an echo.
They can also be just as profitable as domes.
Ask the ACC, which regularly holds its tournament in arenas (Washington's MCI Center hosts this week) and sells it out just as regularly.
Its smaller venues promote scarcity and intimacy. Fewer tickets available to the league's rabid fan base ratchets up demand, which drives up prices and, accordingly, the intensity of those who make their way through the turnstiles.
The SEC isn't as smart. It floods its market with tickets. The Georgia Dome's basketball capacity is 26,000, and that doesn't include the now-closed off third level, which was used in 1995.
Anyone who wants in can get in, whether they pay the $200 full-tournament price or just scalp a ticket from a fan of an eliminated team pawning them off on their way out of town (how do you think so many Kentucky fans get in?)
Those Wildcats boost Atlanta's economy every year, but they kill competitive spirit. Kentucky has won 25 of the 43 SEC Tournaments it has entered, far more than second-place Alabama (who has a six-pack of titles to call its own).
Even Kentucky's bored by now. Thursday, the Lexington Herald-Leader (imported and readily available in downtown Atlanta) featured an amusing, if presumptuous, article on whether or not UK would cut down the Georgia Dome nets if it won Sunday. The past two years, Kentucky has declined the net-cutting ceremony following tournament titles, deeming only NCAA championships worthy of the practice.
Kentucky needs a worthy rival – like Alabama or Florida, maybe LSU – to elevate its program and knock the ‘Cats from their lofty perch a time or two, creating a legit rivalry at the top of the league.
The tournament needs a wake-up call. Moving to smaller venues permanently wouldn't cure its ills. Kentucky's good everywhere.
But as first steps go, it wouldn't be a bad one.