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Deep-Seated Problem

Sagging basketball attendance hits Southland colleges where it hurts

January 18, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

UCLA's 4-8 record in men's basketball has fans staying away from Pauley Pavilion and would be hitting the school's athletic program where it really hurts -- the wallet -- if not for a cruel irony:

The Bruins know they can make up their monetary losses in basketball thanks to the football success of Pacific 10 Conference rivals USC (ouch!) and Washington State.

Because both football teams made it to bowl championship series games, each conference school will receive about $300,000 more than it probably assumed in its budget.

UCLA is selling between 600 and 800 fewer single-game tickets to its home basketball games, costing the Bruins between $10,000 and $28,000 in lost revenue each game, since prices are based on attractiveness of the opponent.

The Bruins still have reasonably healthy season-ticket sales of 10,350, down only about 500 from last year. But single-game sales -- walk-ups -- have lagged considerably.

So it's a good thing the UCLA football team lost to Washington State. Had the Bruins won, only one Pac-10 team would have made the BCS and each conference team would be getting $1.2 million instead of $1.5 million.

"That does make this year a little easier to balance," said David Secor, UCLA associate athletic director in charge of business and finance. "It was very ironic because in order for that to happen we had to lose our last [football] game."

The Bruin basketball team has lost six of eight games at Pauley. Attendance is at a 10-year low. And UCLA isn't the only college basketball team in the area that's struggling. Attendance is down nearly everywhere, probably because only two teams -- UC Irvine (9-4) and Pepperdine (10-6) -- have records above .500.

The 10 men's teams from UC Santa Barbara in the north to Irvine in the south are a combined 56-81.

Even giveaways haven't worked. Pepperdine didn't charge admission for a recent Sunday game against Lipscomb, and still drew only 437 on a beautiful afternoon in Malibu. Cal State Northridge will try a giveaway -- bobblehead dolls of Coach Bobby Braswell -- to the first 850 fans who show for Wednesday's game against Long Beach State.

Schools without football teams rely more heavily on basketball revenue projections.

"It all figures into the bottom line of the entire budget of the athletic department," Long Beach State spokesman Steve Janisch said. "We're not talking about millions of dollars, but there's a big difference if we bring in $170,000 versus $140,000 in season-ticket revenue. Thirty thousand could go a long way here for schools our size."

UCLA's attendance has been adversely affected by home losses to St. John's and Michigan and, more damaging, earlier losses to San Diego and Northern Arizona. There has also been well-chronicled turmoil, with Coach Steve Lavin on the hot seat and some players reportedly unhappy.

But the Bruins aren't alone in their troubles. Seven of the Southland's 10 Division I men's basketball teams had lower average nonconference attendance than they did last season. In most cases, it looks as if fans have simply been turned off by poor play.

USC is 6-6, including a 38-point loss to Penn and a 16-point loss at Santa Barbara.

Long Beach, under first-year Coach Larry Reynolds, had the worst start in its 53-year history and was 1-11 until it defeated Idaho on Thursday. Its other victory was over Cal State Monterey Bay, an NAIA team.

Pepperdine, which was expected to challenge Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference title, has been staggered by health problems. The Waves lost by 16 at home against Utah, and by 20 at Gonzaga last week.

Loyola Marymount is 6-12 and has lost nine of 10, including a game to Point Loma, an NAIA team.

Northridge has lost six in a row after a 6-2 start.

Cal State Fullerton is 3-1 in the Big West, which would be more noteworthy if it wasn't 5-9 overall, with losses to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Idaho State (twice) and, in an exhibition, Occidental College, a Division III team.

Santa Barbara is 6-9; UC Riverside is 2-8. And even Irvine has suffered embarrassing slip-ups, a 27-point loss to Stanford among them.

As for UCLA, six nonconference home games drew an average of 7,342 fans, almost 1,700 off last year's nonconference average of 9,028. The Bruins drew a near-sellout 12,736 last week for the USC game (Pauley holds 12,800), but fell back again with a hushed crowd of 7,710 for Thursday's Pac-10 game against Arizona State.

Including the two Pac-10 games, the Bruins have averaged 8,062 fans, almost 2,300 fewer than the number of season tickets sold. So even fans who already have tickets aren't showing up for games.

UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said the basketball program has "tremendous fan support ... but our fans want to see the team do well."

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