The Evolution Of Bud Walton Arena

Arkansas head basketball coach Mike Anderson and Razorback athletic director Jeff Long talk about trends in Bud Walton Arena attendance and what can be done to get the venue back to its heydey.

Once upon a time, Bud Walton Arena would be sold out even if it was the holiday season and the games were against teams that were far from a marquee name.

There was even a waiting list for tickets for the 19,368-seat venue for the first several years after it was built right before the 1993-94 season - one that would finish with the Razorbacks winning the national title.

Despite what is arguably the best start in a decade, Arkansas (8-2) will likely play before crowds that won’t even fill up half the building when it hosts Milwaukee (5-7) Monday at 8 p.m., Northwestern State (4-5) on Sunday at 2:30 p.m and Utah Valley (3-7) on Jan. 3.

“It’s early and there are a lot of things going on, football, all those things going on,” Anderson said. “My mindset is that I will not be satisfied until we have it packed every game no matter who we play. That is my vision and that’s all I know by being at Arkansas.

“We have to work and give them a reason to,” Anderson added.

Arkansas finished 21st in the country in attendance last season with 14,741 per game - which is the number of tickets sold and not actual attendance.

The Razorbacks had long been in the top 10 nationally in attendance beginning with 1993-94 with an average of 20,134 fans per game back in the 1993-1994 season.

Crowds would eventually slip from an average of 17,148 tickets per game in 2007 (8th nationally) when John Pelphrey was hired to 12,005 (29th nationally) in 2011 when he was fired.

The average season tickets sold at Arkansas have gone up some 3,000 ticket increase since Anderson arrived.

That’s even as college basketball - whose 345 Division I teams averaged 4,817 fans per game as one in five programs lost over 20 percent attendance per the Chronicle of Higher Education - is fighting itself with so many games being available on TV hurting actual attendance.

“It does,” Anderson said. “Especially now that you have the SEC Network and the games with the times they are. But I think the true fans, the real fans they now the difference in what they bring to the table.

“This crowd here tonight was probably the equivalent of 8 to 10 points for our basketball team, just the energy that they created for our guys,” Anderson said.

Current Georgia Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski stressed in that Chronicle of Higher Education report that you have to make the venues special again to combat TV.

“We've all watched really good games on television, and they can be terrific to watch, for sure," Bobinski said. "But when you're at a great game, a high-energy game in person, it's still better. It's still different. It's still an experience that you can't replicate in the friendly confines of your home or a local establishment. Being there is still a special thing, and I think we need to tell that story and make sure that the event lives up to it."

The Razorbacks had their largest “home” crowd of the season on Saturday night when they beat Southeast Missouri 84-67 before 11,305 fans at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

That crowd Anderson speaks of Saturday night in North Little Rock bested the previous best of 9,201 a week early when Arkansas beat Dayton - a program that went to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight last season - in Fayetteville.

Bud Walton Arena has had over 20,000 fans on 57 occasions since it opened, but only one of those times has come since 2001.

It has made some wonder if the Razorbacks arena is too big for the state of the program, but Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long says that is not the case.

“We have an incredible fan base,” Long said. “… We are regular selling 15,000 to 16,000 tickets for these early season games even though fans haven’t shown up yet.

“But we are selling tickets so we are not that far away,” Long said, “and I don’t think they are not buying tickets because of price.

“But having said that, yes, going forward we are looking at the upper deck seating prices, looking at ways again that we can get our fans back,” Long added.

Some radio show callers and message board posters have cited ticket prices - $25 for non-conference games and $30 for SEC home contests - as reasons they don’t attend games.

Season ticket prices range from $360 to $450.

“Our ticket prices are where we were really because of our great success, the tremendous success we had in the 90s,” Long said. “It is always difficult to go back on ticket prices because you are counting on that revenue stream.

“Our stadium - Bud Walton Arena - is fantastic, it is incredible,” Long added. “It was built at the height of our basketball success.”

Long knows that the market is what it once was for college basketball as fans are staying home to watch a plethora of games available to view.

Auburn Arena opened in the 2010-2011 season and seats 9,121 while Ole Miss’ new $85 million Pavilion At Ole Miss - set to open in 2015 - will have a capacity of 9,500.

“The market and viewing of fans of basketball has changed somewhat,” Long said. “I think you wouldn’t build an almost 20,000-seat arena if you were building it now.”

“We won’t have trouble filling Bud Walton when our team performs at a high level and we start going to the NCAA Tournaments again and winning on a very, very consistent basis,” Long said. “We’ll be glad we have that big arena when we get to that point again.”

Long believes that he has the right coach in place.

“I think we are getting there,” Long said. “Mike has built this program and has built it in a way that both he and I wanted it built. That is discipline and accountability, character of the young men in our program.

“You know the history of our APR and those problems are over,” Long added. “Mike took on the burden of guiding us out of that dark period and has done a tremendous job and now he can go about building this program in the image that he wants it in.

“We are going to take a big step this year and I believe we are headed in the right direction,” Long said.

Anthlon Bell

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