Can fans of pro basketball satisfy their hoops jones by watching more college games? That's the thinking of NCAA administrators around the country, who are hopeful that the NBA's annus horribilis will be a bonanza year for college basketball. "With the absence of the NBA, college basketball becomes a lot more appealing," says Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten. "If [the lockout] continues, I don't see how it can't help the crowds, the TV ratings and the excitement for our game."
For schools located in NBA markets, that is already the case. Fans in Chicago have turned to local campuses. Bolstered by a strong recruiting class, DePaul, which hasn't been a force since the early 1980s, boasts a 50% increase in season ticket sales. Fresh from an NCAA tournament appearance, Illinois-Chicago expects attendance to jump by more than 25% this season. Even Northwestern, a perennial sad sack, reports an attendance increase of 30% from last year after four home games. Though no local team was in the Great Eight college tournament last week, capacity crowds converged on the United Center to watch.
The trend holds elsewhere as well. The University of Houston, with no competition from the Rockets—and galvanized by first-year coach Clyde Drexler—has sold out all of its home games in the 8,479-seat Hofheinz Pavilion. Last season the Cougars averaged around 2,800 fans. The University of Washington, in addition to having reached the Sweet 16 last season, is no longer second banana to the Seattle Super-Sonics and, consequently, expects a husky increase of roughly 25% at the gate this season. Administrators at Minnesota, Utah and Georgia Tech expect more fannies in their stands, too. (None of these schools, however, reports an appreciable increase in corporate sponsorship.)
The ABL, the less slickly packaged of the two women's professional hoops leagues, is another candidate to fill the void created by the NBA work stoppage. The league has hired a company to download highlights from its games and transmit them via satellite to TV stations across the country.
"I think we're benefiting in terms of media coverage and filling the airspace that's available now," says league CEO Gary Cavalli. "But so far we haven't seen the growth in attendance we were hoping for."
Indeed, the ABL's average crowd of 4,092 a game is almost identical to last year's figure. But for certain teams the numbers are encouraging. With Key Arena's principal tenant, the Sonics, missing in action, the Seattle Reign played a game last week that attracted a franchise-record crowd of 7,358. The expansion Chicago Condors are second in the ABL in attendance. "There have definitely been converts," says Erin O'Connell, director of sales and marketing for the Portland Power. "We've gotten calls from Trail Blazers season-ticket holders saying, 'I miss my basketball. When's your next game?' "
"If the NBA continues its monumental stupidity and does not play," Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor told the Chicago-Sun Times recently, "it will certainly help all of us."