On Feb. 23, with their season on the line and a four-game winning streak in hand, the Ohio State men’s basketball team trailed the No. 6 Michigan State Spartans by six points entering the last 15 minutes of its second-to-last home game of the 2015-16 season.
Final attendance for the game: 14,000, 76 percent of the 18,809 seating capacity. OSU would go on to lose by a final score of 81-62.
The 2015-16 season became the first time OSU did not receive a NCAA tournament bid in eight years.
In a sport where home-court advantage is critical to success, programs across the country experience students lining up for tickets days before games. The Big Ten, host conference for both Michigan State and OSU, has led the nation in attendance for 40 straight years. OSU however, has trended downward at an unprecedented rate.
Despite a steady run of successful years and OSU coach Thad Matta becoming the winningest coach in program history, the Buckeyes’ attendance numbers are in steep decline, having lost 4,241 fans in average attendance between 2013 and 2016. The average attendance in 2012-2013 was 16,524.
Casual observers are quick to make assumptions. Perhaps a poor nonconference schedule, fewer in-state opponents, or a less star-studded roster drive down attendance, but more economic reasons have caused average attendance to sink to a 20-year low of 12,283 per game during the 2015-2016 season.
Enter the OSU Department of Athletics’ student ticket plan, which encouraged attendance to games against lesser competition in order to have priority for marquee matchups. This format was intended to provide students with more choices while also getting fans in the stands.
Matthew Carabajal, the associate ticket director of the ticket office and ticket sales for the OSU Department of Athletics, believes the fluctuations in attendance are directly related to students.
“Students are a last-minute type of crowd,” Carabajal said. “It’s mostly a lot of external factors that dictate their attendance. Whether that’s class, studying or whatever.”
The OSU Undergraduate Student Government, the Department of Athletics and Block “O”, the official OSU student section that coordinates attendance and seating with athletics, collaborated on the student ticket plan.
The objective was to create incentives for students to attend premiere games by upgrading the locations of their seats according to attendance of previous games. Tickets were sold to students in “blocks” of three or four games, depending on how many games OSU was scheduled to play at the Schottenstein Center.
“Essentially, your access to the block was dependent on your attendance to the previous block,” Carbajal said.
The 2014-15 season was the first time the short-lived plan was deployed, which has scuttled sales for games that once sold out within a half-hour of going on sale.
“The very first block (of 2014) we saw sales fall by about 1,000,” Carabajal said. “So we went from 2,400 to just over 1,300.”
It didn’t stop there.
“The next block fell to around 800 and the last to around 630,” Carabajal said.
The previous year, in which OSU used a system where students would pay a flat rate for season tickets that entitled them to attend every game, was profitable for the ticketing office. OSU finished the year with an average of 16,474 fans per game, good for ninth in the nation and third among fellow Big Ten institutions.
Attendance wasn’t the problem. Money was.
“We were really worried about the resale to nonstudents,” Gerard Basalla, the OSU USG president said. “Although ticket sales were definitely good, the biggest issue was getting students in the student section.”
Basalla said the aftermarket sale for tickets was corrupting the atmosphere in the student section, which is located directly behind both team’s benches.
“(Block-”O”) came to us and said ‘you have to come up with a solution because what is happening on the off-market is a disaster,’” Basalla said. “People are overselling their tickets, it’s a complete nightmare.’”
Following the fallout of the original packages, OSU students and USG representatives met to try and salvage something from the wreckage.
“The following year (2015-16) we regrouped with USG representatives, everyone agreed the initial way didn’t work,” Carabajal said. “So we kind of did a last-ditch ‘what can we do to tweak it.’ We took away a lot of the ‘punishment’ that was inhibiting kids from having access to tickets and we broke up the tickets to a similar way we do for football.”
Despite ticket packages designed to be more equitable, attendance continues to fall.
The 20-year low set during the 2015-16 season is likely to be eclipsed by the current season. Attendance for the season-opener at home versus North Carolina Central University was 9,787, which is 52 percent capacity.
Against major program Providence on Nov. 17, there were a total of 11,089 fans in attendance.
The decline has done more than just raise eyebrows, it has prompted yet another alteration to ticket sales, the third in three years.
“Taking it into this year we went back into the way it was during the 2013 season,” Carabajal said. “It’s a 10-game student package, all games occur during classes, here’s the discounted price, put it all on sale.”
Even with the lack of ticket sales this season, Sunday’s edition of OSU vs. Michigan State drew 17,449 people.
But Basalla thinks greater forces are at play.
“We are not a basketball school,” he said. “We are not. Indiana is a basketball school.”
Basalla, who laments the number of complaints he receives about a lack of interest in the basketball program, wants to analyze the tide of social forces.
“The key is what is the school’s culture? What is the No. 1 portion of the social calendar?” Basalla said. “What we are talking about is students. Students at Ohio State care about football.”
It is impossible, of course, to ignore the high tide of OSU basketball — advancing to the NCAA title game in 2007 and the residual boost in interest that carried attendance through the 2012 season.
“Ohio State 10 years ago was a glory-time,” Basalla said. “It’s very difficult to compare Greg Oden, Mike Conley, (Jared) Sullinger and (Aaron) Craft to where we are now.”
Basalla’s objective is to sustain a basketball culture where a few times a year the school can be buzzing with excitement for an important game.
“You might feel less inclined to go to a lower-level game when they’re playing a team from nowhere, but the profile of bigger games gets hyped. When (the team) is on ESPN, that place is packed, these are facts,” Basalla said. “When we played Michigan State at home (in 2016), even with the team that was way below the normal standard of the last decade, the place was jam-packed. You couldn’t get a ticket.”
The Ohio State men’s basketball program declined to comment for this story.
1/19 Correction: A change has been made to reflect the decrease in total number of fans on average from 2013 to 2016. The Lantern has also corrected Matt Carabajal to associate ticket director and removed him as a principal designer for the ticket deal.