As Craig and I sat at KeyArena last night, watching the Cougs play just well enough to hold off a mediocre Buffalo team, we marveled at just how empty the place was. The announced attendance for the eighth annual Cougar Hardwood Classic was 7,269, but I'd wager it was probably more like 5,000 -- the lower bowl, which seats about 9,600, appeared to be about one third full, while there were maybe 1,500 people scattered in a few open sections in the upper bowl.
There's no doubt 5,000 people in Seattle is a lot better than 1,000 people in Pullman while the students are out of town. But I think anyone associated with WSU would tell you that a two-thirds empty KeyArena is not what they envision for this event.
The explanation is simple: For the vast majority of the years this game has been played, the opponents have been ... uninspiring. And attendance has reflected it.
|2006||San Diego State||5872|
The first year was year three of the Dick Bennett rebuild, and there just wasn't a lot of interest in the program. The second year, people hadn't quite caught on to the fact that the team was really, really good. Attendance spiked the following year, for what should be an obvious reason, but then dipped back down the next year for a second consecutive weak opponent -- a trend that has held since, save for the one contest against LSU.
The lesson? WSU better be really good or the opponent better be highly interesting. And for too many of these eight years, neither has applied to the Cougar Hardwood Classic. There obviously is only so much the Cougars can do about the former; I mean, the team is always trying to be good, so it's not like there's a lot of choice involved there.
But the latter seems like something that ought to be correctable, even with the caveat that scheduling in basketball is quite a bit more difficult than most casual fans want to realize. There are a lot of moving parts, and it ultimately comes down to who is willing to play you at a mutually agreeable location.
However, that also provides a pretty convenient excuse: "Well, we tried! But nobody will come!"
To which I emphatically say: That's a bunch of baloney.
I don't doubt that it's difficult to get a quality opponent to Seattle, but I'll jump in as part of the chorus of fans who say, "Gonzaga does it -- how hard can it be?" The Zags obviously have the built-in advantage being a good team year-in and year-out, so a top-tier opponent knows that they're not risking their potential tournament resume to play the Bulldogs.
But here's the thing: I don't think WSU fans are obsessed with a "top-tier" opponent -- the kind of team that is more likely to pass on a risky game against a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 team. Yes, LSU was coming off a tournament appearance (as a No. 8 seed) four years ago, but the Tigers hardly qualify as a basketball heavyweight. Yet 15,000 rowdy fans helped will the Cougs to victory on that night. It's not hard to come up with a pretty extensive list of middle-of-the-road major conference opponents that should be willing to come to Seattle under the right conditions.
If Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Iowa, Purdue, Boston College or Wake Forest came to Seattle, I'll go out on a limb and say WSU draws twice what it did last night. I don't think Duke or Ohio State or Florida is necessary to draw an acceptable crowd.
Ultimately -- and I know WSU would publicly dispute this -- I think it comes down to how bad the Cougars want a better opponent. Gonzaga, from its very first "Battle in Seattle," purposed to play a quality opponent. WSU, to some degree, seems to have been more generally concerned with bringing in a beatable opponent that won't command a big enough payday to cut too far into the bottom line. I have no inside information to that effect. But I think the following quote given to Bud Withers by John Hines of Idol Sports, the company that puts on the event and handles its promotion, is telling.
"Strategy-wise, we've sold this more as an alumni party."
Football has been able to do reasonable well with that strategy -- the idea that if we simply throw a party, everyone will show up. Heck, the team drew over 50,000 for Grambling State. But, on so many levels, basketball is not football. There's no all-day tailgate in the sunshine with your friends; there's "try and get through the traffic so that you hopefully make it by tipoff and get to hug your long-lost Coug buddies at halftime."
At the end of Withers' story, Bill Moos floats the idea of getting involved. I know it's unusual for athletics directors to get involved with basketball scheduling, but the fact that Moos never has tells you what you need to know about just how much of a non-priority the opponent has been. WSU needs to do whatever it needs to do to bring in a better opponent. Offer a bigger payout if you have to. But do something.
This ought to be a premier event for the school. Let's get serious about treating it like one.