- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In 2008-09, Kentucky men's basketball coach Billy Gillispie led the Wildcats to a 22-14 record and an appearance in the NIT. Kentucky fans were furious. In March of 2009, Gillispie was fired; that afternoon, local media chased him around as he pretended to talk on the phone. It was hilarious and sad, a proud program reduced to a bad impression of TMZ.
John Calipari stepped into that breach a few weeks later, and no one has laughed at Kentucky much since. In 2009-10, with John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, and DeMarcus Cousins, Calipari won 35 games and went to the Elite Eight. In 2010-11, a slow UK start eventually turned into a 29-9 record and a Brandon Knight-led Final Four trip. In 2011-12, Calipari's 38-2 team was one of the most dominant in college hoops history.
Last season's NIT disaster was a … setback, let's call it. But so what? In four years Calipari has a) been to two Final Fours, b) won a national title, c) recruited an absurd percentage of the nation's best talent, d) sent most of that talent to the NBA draft lottery and e) made Kentucky men's basketball a household name in every conceivable way.
And yet, despite all that, Kentucky's early-season attendance is declining.
That's what Lexington Herald-Leader writer John Clay discovered last week, when he compared attendance numbers for the first seven games of the 2013-14 season to their equivalents in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Clay's charts (at the link) offer up the numbers, and they point to a clear trend: Fewer people are showing up for UK basketball games this season than in Gillispie's final season. Huh?
Of course, a significant caveat applies: This is still Kentucky. Rupp Arena is one of the largest college hoops arenas in the country, and the Wildcats have led the nation in total attendance pretty much every season for the decade and a half [PDF]. (Before 1997, Kentucky frequently ranked No. 2 behind Syracuse; those two have been trading the belt since 1979. Syracuse was No. 1 in 2005 -- the only time since the mid-90s Kentucky hasn't finished first.) A decline in attendance at Rupp Arena is like a decline in "Call of Duty" sales: True or not, there are still a ton of people playing Call of Duty.
But, still, the numbers are there, and they are undeniable. The most interesting question is: Why? Clay's theories -- "television, or the lack of an enticing home schedule, or a lack of connection with the ever-changing roster, or the students" -- seem to represent the general consensus among Kentucky fans, at least those who responded to John on Facebook. There is also a fair amount of understandable frustration regarding this season's disappointing team -- frustration Calipari attempted to assuage in a blog post Tuesday morning:
I know we have to be more organized, our mission has to be clearer to the players, and I have to be less emotional during the game because we’ve got a bunch of young kids. I can’t put winning before their growth. … This is about getting these players to think a different way, to think about serving each other. My job is to serve them. Their job is to serve each other. …. I just have to stay patient and continue loving them as I challenge them and raise the bar -- no easy task when you’re dealing with 18-year-olds. These are good kids. They want to learn. We are going to be fine. Just remember it’s a process. Enjoy the ride, Big Blue Nation, because we need you.
Is this the hidden dynamic in Kentucky's attendance blips? It must be difficult to grow attached to a new team every season, and then turn that roster over entirely the following fall; a good number of people wrote some version of this theory to Clay in their responses. Is that the risk of Calipari's high-stakes talent experiment: That fans grow more distant and clinical, too?
I doubt it. If anything, the most likely culprits are the economic factors/ticket prices, TV availability and Kentucky's soft home nonconference schedule, if not necessarily in that order. The simplest explanations are usually the best, right? What am I missing?