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BJC: Basketball Cathedral or Basketball Tomb?


As the gleaming edifice of the sparkling new Pegula Ice Arena gets its final touches just a stone's throw from the Bryce Jordan Center, I can't help but think that the basketball team must be just a little envious. The new ice arena will have every conceivable amenity and jump start a fledgling hockey program right into the fast lane. However, it will only have 6000 seats, the smallest hockey arena in the Big Ten. Even so, it will cost 90 million to build while the BJC cost 55 million in 1996 (83 million if adjusted for inflation) and seats almost three times as many people. The ice arena was reportedly kept small to keep the budget under control but also to keep it full most nights. The theory is that a smaller, but fuller, arena can create the kind of electric and intimidating atmosphere that's just not possible in a cavernous big venue with dark and silent empty seats. That's the kind of atmosphere that you get many a night over at the Bryce Jordan Center.

So the question about which I have been wondering lately, as others have done in the past, is weather Penn State basketball would be better off moving back to Rec Hall and abandoning the BJC. With the exception of Northwestern and Rutgers, all the B1G teams play in large arenas of more than 12,000 seats, and fill them up regularly. However, a large arena is not necessary for program success. Duke plays in a 9000 seat arena and the newly #1 ranked Gonzaga team plays in a 6000 seat arena, which is about the same seating capacity as Penn State's Rec Hall. Recently, Pat Chambers floated the idea of playing a couple of games a year over at Rec Hall. He cites both the nostalgia factor for the alums as well as the home court advantage of a packed house. The players and assistant coaches are also quoted in that article as in favor of the idea. It would seem that playing in a mostly empty BJC is weighing on them a bit. However, if it is good for a couple a games a year, should they play all of their games there? Obviously a packed BJC with 15,000 plus would be preferable but is that feasible? Even if coach Chambers builds a winner here will the BJC ever fill up enough to provide a real home court advantage like those enjoyed by other Big Ten teams?

Penn State has a couple of major disadvantages when it comes to attendance compared to other Big Ten basketball programs. The first is obviously the lack of a winning basketball tradition. But, not to be overlooked is the relatively small size of the State College metro area as well as its isolation from any other major metro areas. Penn State can draw 107,000 for a football game because the games are few and on the weekend, much of the season takes place in decent weather, and the legacy of Joe Paterno. Basketball games are numerous, often on week nights, and occur through the dead of winter in central PA. I don't think you could expect anyone to regularly drive more than an hour to see a basketball game, maybe even less for a week night. Below, I have listed in descending order the populations of the current Big Ten member metro areas, and for the metros under a million people I have listed in parentheses the populations of the largest neighboring metros within an hour's drive:

  1. Northwestern University, Evanston (part of Chicago metro) 9,729,825
  2. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis 3,318,486
  3. Ohio State University, Columbus 1,858,464
  4. University of Wisconsin, Madison 568,593 (Milwaukee 1,751,316)
  5. Michigan State University, East Lansing 464,036 (Flint 425,790, Battle Creek 136,146, Grand Rapids 774,160)
  6. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 344,791 (Detroit 4,296,250)
  7. University of Nebraska, Lincoln 302,157 (Omaha 865,360)
  8. University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana 231,891 (Bloomington 169,572, Decatur 109,900)
  9. Purdue University, West Lafayette 182,821 (Indianapolis 1,756,241)
  10. University of Indiana, Bloomington 175,506 (Indianapolis 1,756,241)
  11. Pennsylvania State University, State College 153,990 (Altoona 127,814, Williamsport 119,000)
  12. University of Iowa, Iowa City 152,586 (Cedar Rapids, 257,940, Quad Cities 381,342)

The most important thing I realized putting this together is that only three Big Ten schools have less than a million people within an hour's drive: Iowa with close to 800,000, Illinois with just over 500,000, and then Penn State which has only 400,000. The population centers around State College are dramatically smaller than most other big ten schools. So for Penn State to fill up its basketball arena it either has to get a much higher percentage of the locals to invest in the basketball program, or it has to get people to drive more than an hour to see a basketball game. Illinois is only 2 hours from the 10 million strong Chicago metro and has a long basketball tradition so they must use both strategies to overcome their relative isolation. State College could potentially pull from the the modestly sized Harrisburg metro (pop. about 500,000) only 90 minutes away, but the much larger Pittsburgh and Philadelphia metros are really a stretch unless it is over a weekend.

So is it possible for PSU to overcome these demographic limitations by building a winning program? I think you can draw some conclusions from how they have done in the past. I took a look back at PSU average attendance going back to 1978. I then correlated that with their record that year. The chart below has the year, followed by the average attendance, attendance rank nationally, and win/loss record for that year (sorry about all the data, but I love data):

Year

Avg. Attendance

Nat. Attendance Ranking

Record

1978

3,470

#139

8-19

1979

3,199

#155

12-18

1980

4,467

#105

18-10

1981

3,696

#131

17-10

1982

3,486

#144

15-12

1983

3,426

#143

17-11

1984

3,496

#148

5-22

1985

3,068

#156

8-19

1986

2,731

#164

12-17

1987

2,881

#170

15-12

1988

3,616

#134

13-14

1989

3,847

#137

20-12

1990

2,984

#168

25-9

1991

5,873

#97

21-11

1992

5,145

#109

21-8

1993

6,119

#86

7-20

1994

6,461

#80

13-14

1995

6,666

#81

21-11

1996

10,917

#35

21-7

1997

13,145

#22

10-17

1998

9,723

#42

19-13

1999

10,635

#31

13-14

2000

9,350

#47

19-16

2001

10,588

#35

21-12

2002

8,140

#57

7-21

2003

6,902

#75

7-21

2004

7,614

#68

9-19

2005

7,990

#65

7-23

2006

6,830

#80

15-15

2007

7,989

#70

11-19

2008

8,041

#69

15-16

2009

8,020

#66

27-11

2010

8,150

#62

11-20

2011

7,457

#70

19-15

2012

6,937

#77

12-20

A couple of things jumped out at me from this chart. First, you can see the big spike in attendance when they first moved to the BJC in 1996. It peaks in 1997 with an average attendance of over 13,000 and a national attendance rank of 22! That was a team that only went 10-17. They were coming off two good years and the BJC must have still had that new car smell which was enough to keep people coming. 2001 is also a good year, cracking the 10,000 barrier for attendance. However, nothing close to 1997, even though they did much better on the court that year (21-12, NCAA berth). The magic of the new arena is really starting to wane at this point. Then for the next ten years attendance goes off a cliff.

The truly depressing year if you are looking for signs of a developing fan base is 2009. How does a team that wins 27 games not draw much more than 8000 a game? Now, many of those wins came in the NIT, but still that team is a high water mark for regular season performance in the last decade. But if you look deeper at the numbers it is not quite so bad. Once that team started winning some games the attendance did pick up. Over the last 7 conference games that year they averaged 12,310. They had a full house (15,035) that came out to see them beat an unranked Indiana. They even drew over 10,000 on a wednesday night playing Mich. State. Then there was Thursday night 3/5/09 against Illinois. I snapped this picture just a few moments after Talor Battle's coast to coast effort finally stopped rattling around the rim and dropped in with 0.3 seconds left, then 13,091 go a little crazy:

8538381272_360871e398_medium

IMG_0043.JPG (via SnowLion5)

So should PSU abandon the Bryce Jordan center and go back to Rec Hall? I think the answer is no. That Illinois game, although a big game for PSU, was really just a middle of the pack unranked Penn State team taking on a #23 ranked Illinois team. These sort of moments should become common place if Chambers can get just a little bit of success in the Penn State basketball program. If Penn State could just break even in the Big Ten and consistently challenge for a spot in the tournament, the BJC would fill up regularly. A couple of non-conference games early in the season at Rec Hall would be fine (they haven't even been drawing 6000 to those games for years) as rec hall is looking spiffy inside these days as seen here and here. But moving back there permanently would be admitting that PSU basketball has a certain ceiling that it will never break through. I think Penn Staters dream big and we expect our basketball program to dream big too.

Although, if Mr. Pegula wanted to donate another 100 million to build a sleek and tricked out 12,000 seat basketball only arena, that wouldn't be so bad either.

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