Doesn't everyone love a good underdog story of a group of men rising to triumph over and beyond any expectations?
From the looks of the attendance numbers for Tennessee basketball this season, some Vols fans aren't embracing their homegrown, improbable story.
After being picked to finish 13th in the Southeastern Conference, Rick Barnes has his team are far exceeding those expectations currently sitting in a tie for fifth in the standings. His unit holds an RPI in the middle 30s behind a strength of schedule in the top 5 in the country. The Big Orange entered the game with Ole Miss on Wednesday winners of five of their last six and squarely on the NCAA bubble.
With so much on the line Tennessee players have taken to Twitter in recent days and weeks asking, if not begging, fans to show up and support them. Seniors Lew Evans and Robert Hubbs III have been the most vocal but those requests fell largely on deaf ears as Wednesday's attendance was 12,209, which was the lowest turnout for an SEC game since Feb. 23, 2005.
To be fair to the loyal group of Tennessee basketball fans that continue to support this team with their attendance, many programs would kill for even the lowest of Tennessee attendance numbers. The 12,209 was the fourth-highest attended game of the SEC midweek slate with Kentucky, South Carolina and Arkansas all having bigger crowds.
While the loyal core of Big Orange Country has steadfastly stood behind its beloved Vols, it's that secondary group of fans that seemingly have failed to be connected within recent years. In 2011, Bruce Pearl's last season, every SEC contest was scene by more than 18,000 fans. While those numbers have declined in the years since, this season has seen the brunt of the decline.
Only one 2017 SEC contest (Kentucky) has seen a crowd of over 14,000 turn out to see this overachieving team. In comparison, only six of the 52 games from 2011-2016 were attended by less than 14,000.
So why is this trend happening?
A number of fans have expressed their opinions for the reasons of the declining attendance numbers. Some of those opinions are:
- Low expectations
- Lack of promoting the program from Rick Barnes and athletics department
- Increasing difficulty in parking for fans without passes
- Some midweek start times moving up to 6:30 for the SEC Network
There is little debate that Tennessee fans experienced the marketing genius of Bruce Pearl and some expect their head coach to use similar tactics to get fannies in the seats. Good, bad or indifferent that simply isn't the way Rick Barnes operates.
Campus construction combined with not having a parking pass has some disgruntled to the extent that they won't attend contests at the TBA with consistency.
The pushed-up tip-offs has been the biggest issue. One fan explained to InsideTennessee, "By the time I get off work at 5 p.m. and fight West Knoxville traffic to get home, there simply isn't time for me to get to the game on time. I took my family to the Arkansas game and didn't get there until midway through the first half. I didn't want to miss any of the Ole Miss game and elected to stay and watch it from home."
The Arkansas game earlier in the year was a 6:30 tip and at the time it was the least-attended game since 2005 with an attendance of 13,002. These start times have produced lighter crowds and late-arriving ones at that. The picture above was taken just 10 minutes before Wednesday's tip-off and sets a bleak stage for the start of a contest that had so much on the line.
Another season ticket holder from Athens, Tennessee, said this of the 6:30 starts: "The SEC has made a statement that the early start time is more important than allowing schools to maximize their attendance numbers. I simply can't get there for a 6:30 game."
So can Vols fans rally around this team and reverse the trend in these last four home games?
"I tell our team that they have to get the crowd into the game," Barnes said, "but truth be told sometimes we need the crowd to get us going."
Tennessee hoops lovers have a quartet of contests remaining to show that they do indeed love a good underdog story.