Although tenting for this year’s home game against North Carolina generated unprecedented student interest, Duke is not immune to the attendance questions that are facing athletic departments across the country.
Filling up the student section at Cameron Indoor Stadium for ordinary games is still a challenge.
Undergraduate attendance for men’s basketball has dropped during the last decade, Jon Jackson, senior associate director of athletics for external affairs, wrote in an email, though he added that graduate student attendance has increased to make total student attendance remain relatively constant. Without as many undergrads showing up, Duke Athletics has to sell general admission tickets to the public for most games to fill up Section 17, which officially holds about 1,200 people.
Duke declined to provide raw student attendance numbers for most games, but Jackson wrote that no general admission tickets were sold to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge contest Nov. 29 against Michigan State. Tents started to fill Krzyzewskiville—or "K-Ville", as it is often referred to—for that game more than a day before tipoff, and several Blue Devils remarked after the game that the raucous crowd was a factor in the decisive second-half run that fueled Duke’s 78-69 win.
“The fans are a big part of what we do. They’re a part of us,” sophomore Luke Kennard said after the game. “We need them every single night to lift us when we need it most, and I think that’s what they did tonight. The fans were great. The atmosphere was unbelievable. That’s what college basketball is all about.”
But that atmosphere has been hard to match since, with plenty of aging fans standing in general admission seats next to energetic students at every other home game this season. Even at some big games last year—such as a Monday night home game against then-No. 13 Louisville—there were still several empty rows at Cameron less than 45 minutes before tipoff.
Duke’s student line monitors meet with athletics staff members prior to each game to estimate how many students will come and how many tickets can be offered, taking factors like the time of the game and where it falls in the academic calendar into account.
“We make every effort to ensure that any student who wants to attend a game and shows up prior to tipoff gets into Cameron Indoor Stadium,” Jackson wrote.
The Blue Devils may see a spike in student attendance during the next month, though.
With K-Ville already almost at full capacity for the home game against the Tar Heels Feb. 9, it will be easy for students already waiting in tents to venture out to other games, too. Duke also hosts Miami, N.C. State and Pittsburgh during tenting season, with ESPN's "College Gameday" coming to Durham Saturday when the Blue Devils play the Hurricanes.
Former head line monitor Michael Marion, Trinity '15, wrote in an email that he noticed a slight uptick in student attendance during shorter tenting years—seasons when Duke’s home game against North Carolina falls in early February instead of in March.
“The time it took K-Ville to fill to capacity was largely a function of the length of the tenting season,” Marion wrote. “K-Ville fills faster in shorter seasons, and as more students pitch tents, it gets easier to sell them on attending home games since they’re already invested in going to the [North] Carolina game.”
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But Marion also suggested it has been harder to sell students on coming to games in recent years because there simply are not as many marquee home games anymore, and that has never been more true than this season.
The ACC had just nine teams before the 2004-05 season, which meant every team in the conference played every other team both at home and on the road.
But since the conference has expanded to 15 teams—this season is the fourth in the current 15-team format—five of those schools will not come to Durham to play this year. Duke has just two home games against ranked ACC teams on its schedule, and was assigned road games against top contenders Notre Dame, Louisville and Virginia this year and home contests against ACC bottom-feeders Wake Forest, Clemson, N.C. State and Boston College.
“Imagine playing every single team in the top tier of the conference at home every single season, and you start to get an idea of what things were like back in what many would term the heyday of the Cameron Crazies,” Marion wrote. “More students felt duty-bound to help the team win at home, because the outcome wasn’t always as assured as it can seem to be for some games today.”
Other factors that have coincided with a drop in attendance during the last decade have been a lower undergraduate acceptance rate, a diversification of the student body and rapidly increasing tuition costs. Marion pointed out that it is hard to get students to prioritize basketball games if they want to make the most of their families’ investment in their education and did not grow up around ACC basketball.
Erin Brown, Trinity '16 and former president of the Inferno—Duke’s student-run club that aims to increase attendance at all 26 varsity sports—agreed that a more academic environment has played a role in the recent attendance challenges.
“At Duke, the academics have just been increasing in terms of prestige and difficulty,” Brown said. “One of these past years—I can’t remember what year it was—it was the first time more people had written about DukeEngage than Duke basketball in their ‘Why Duke?’ essay in their application, so you can see that shift happening.”
But undergraduate attendance has not dropped for every sport in the last decade.
Head coach David Cutcliffe has revived the Blue Devil football program and caused a steady increase in attendance at football games, bucking a 7.1 percent nationwide decrease in student attendance at football games from 2009 to 2014 reported by The Wall Street Journal, but football games still are not events that consistently attract a significant portion of the student body.
In a survey of 894 randomly sampled undergraduates The Chronicle conducted in the fall, 26.6 percent expected to have attended zero football games by the end of the year and just 16.2 percent expected to have attended at least five—the number of home games that took place while school was in session.
Most of the students that showed up to games were gone from Wallace Wade Stadium by halftime of every game this year—except for a Thursday night upset win against then-No. 15 North Carolina—ready to get on with their Saturdays or get back to the comfort of their rooms.
Many students stay in their dorms during the winter, too, preferring to watch games through streaming sites on common-room couches rather than waiting in the cold to stand inside Cameron for a few hours.
Marion wrote that the ultimate challenge is getting the experience of watching the game in person to outweigh the comfort of watching from home, a challenge that depends on students themselves to make a reality.
“The more all students organically invest together in making Cameron a fun place to be for everybody, the better Cameron will be,” Marion wrote. “The people for whom the experience needs to improve are ironically the ones who have the most power to make it happen.”
Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.