If You Play It, Will They Come?

When it was unveiled Sunday night that Stanford and Virginia will meet in the marquee opening round game of the NIT, Cardinal and Cavaliers fans braced for the announced location. Virginia has the burden of traveling three time zones on less than 48 hours notice, but how big will Stanford's homecourt advantage be? NIT single-game tickets sold on short notice can yield a low attendance, which has Stanford slashing prices.

While Stanford Basketball games have been sold out for the vast majority of the past decade, actual attendance at Maples Pavilion has varied from game to game.  While the Cardinal were climbing toward their peak performances - notching new win totals, recording their first #1 rankings, winning their first Pac-10 titles, and claiming their first #1 NCAA Tournament seeds - fans could not miss a game.

That was then; this is now.  Selling out season tickets may guarantee a certain paid attendance (7,391 in the old Maples - we're not yet defined as to the absolute capacity in the new Maples), but actual bodies rolling through the turnstiles can come in at a lower number if some season ticket holders opt to stay home for opponents with lesser cachet.

Take this season, for example.  Though the number of seats was theoretically trimmed during  the 2004 renovation of Maples Pavilion, we twice this season saw crowds in excess of the old capacity.  7,598 watched Stanford vs. Cal, and 7,400 came for the Arizona game - the latter number impressive considering the Sunday date during a holiday weekend.  But weekday games against weaker opponents have not drawn the same numbers: Oregon State - 4,103.  Washington State - 6,407.  Arizona State - 5,487.  USC - 5,120.  Thousands fewer fans have made the trip to Maples Pavilion, despite holding season tickets for these game.

That is the potential problem for Tuesday night's NIT opener for Stanford.  Games against Pac-10 rivals have only partially filled Maples Pavilion this year despite sold-out tickets.  Many of those fans who do attend Thursday games are driven by the sunk cost they put into their season tickets - "I already paid for it, so..."  But what happens when you add an extra game at home without any pre-sold tickets?  When the Cardinal host Virginia tomorrow night, regular season ticket holders will not necessarily be compelled to attend.  They, along with any other interested fans, have to make a special single-game purchase decision for this game.

This is not a problem unique to Stanford this week.  The NIT annually has attendance problems for its hosted games prior to their "Final Four" semifinals and finals at Madison Square Garden.  College basketball programs, like Stanford, sell season tickets because many fans have conflicts or varying levels of interest with many games on a regular season schedule.  They buy season tickets to lock up their seat at the marquee games, which hold a much higher intrinsic value than the ho-hum contests.  Once they own a ticket to the Arizona State game as well as the prized Arizona game, they may just as well attend both.  Heck, they paid for both.

This opening round game versus Virginia does not have any strings attached or extra incentive to entice Stanford fans to make a purchase.  The pool of fans in the area collectively decide to buy season tickets because they know there are numerous games they "must" see.  How many fans will feel driven to watch Stanford's first appearance in the post-season outside the NCAA Tournament since 1994?  Not nearly as many.

Again, these market dynamics are hardly unique to Stanford.  Schools from power conferences all over the country garner attendance numbers for the NIT often less than half their average season attendance.

Stanford's players are smart and recognized this when they gathered and decided that they would prefer not to play a home game should they find themselves in the NIT field.  Some of the seniors, in particular, could not stomach the idea of overwriting their recognized "Senior Day" with an NIT game that saw only 3,000 fans scattered through Maples Pavilion.  The ignominy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years is embarrassment enough for Dan Grunfeld and Matt Haryasz, but to make their last college game on their home campus spottily attended would be crushing.

That tune changed last night once the reality of the NIT schedule came to light.  The 40-team field and bracket was unveiled less than 48 hours before Stanford is scheduled to play Virginia.  If those Cardinal players had their wish and were traveling to Charlottesville, three time zones away with essentially no notice, they would be most unhappy.  Suddenly, the idea of staying home looked downright delightful.

"Actually, I'd rather play at home, now that everything has come out - especially two days [before the game]," Haryasz admits.  "I know, for myself, this is dead week and I have a ton of work to get done.  I think a lot of other guys have a lot of work, too.  Traveling and work - I think it's good for us to have this home game.  Obviously [there is a] home court advantage and not having to travel, so this is good for us."

While the team may now better embrace the reality of this home game, will the fans?  The dynamics discussed above tell us that attendance could be weak.  Stanford anticipated that and prior to last night's home game assignment already put in place a ticket plan to grab fans' attention.

Lower level tickets, which are not only expensive during the season but also unattainable to all but a select group of big donors and decade-plus season ticket holders, are available for just $20.  Season ticket holders, many of which sit in the upper level at Maples Pavilion, have first crack at these prized seats in the lower bowl as well as the cushioned loge section.  For many Cardinalmaniacs™, this is an incredibly rare chance to sit down low at Maples Pavilion with a comfort and vantage unattainable during the season.  To wit, I dropped $40 last night as soon as tickets went on sale, despite the fact that I have a free chair awaiting me up top of Maples in press seating.  This Virginia game gives me the chance to sit at halfcourt in the second row of the lower level.  Those will be the best seats I have enjoyed since my student days in the mid-1990s, when I stood in the Sixth Man club section a few feet from the sideline at halfcourt.

The price is also gripping.  Virginia, from the ACC, is the highest profile non-conference opponent to come to Maples since David West and #11-ranked Xavier in November 2002, ironically in the Preseason NIT.  For a game with comparable cachet this year, you would have paid a face value of $34 to sit upstairs at Maples and $46 or more to sit in the loge or lower level.  To help "pack the house," Stanford has driven lower bowl tickets down to $20.  Upper level tickets have been knocked all the way down to $12.  Even cheaper still, a special $8 rate is being offered for seniors and children (high school or younger).

The strongest move of all has been the decision to allow all students into the game for free.  Not just the Sixth Man Club section, but any student who shows their student I.D. at the student entrance can waltz into Maples Pavilion for a post-season game against an ACC opponent - without spending a dime.  The Virginia Cavaliers are the first ACC team to come to Stanford since Georgia Tech in 2000, and students can walk in for free at tip-off to watch the Cardinal take on the team that beat NCAA #3-seeded North Carolina and #4 seed Boston College this year.

To buy tickets, call the Stanford Ticket Office at 1-800-STANFORD.  Or go online to http://www.gostanford.com.

The staff and administration are trying to make a push, with this ticket plan and other promotions, to bring fans into Maples Pavilion tomorrow night.  But perhaps the most compelling message comes from the players, who want to seize the homecourt advantage that has lifted Stanford to a 144-23 Maples record over the last dozen years.  A packed Maples Pavilion could be the difference for Stanford's chances to vanquish Virginia.

"To all of our fans, we appreciate all the support that they give us.  They make a huge difference in all the games," Haryasz pleads.  "I know that they might be disappointed that we are not in the NCAA Tournament, and that's understandable, but we're going to try our best and we need them.  All the fans out there are huge for us and huge to our success, so we definitely need them out there."

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