The reasons behind Tech's basketball attendance drop

The Georgia Tech's men's basketball program has experienced small decreases in its ticket sales and related revenues for the past two seasons.

But the decreases weren't shocking.

Not anymore.

Season-ticket sales have decreased from last season by 23.7 percent, to 4,333 this season. The number of people buying tickets has decreased by 32.8 percent, to 1,865. Most important, the Georgia Tech Athletic Association recently projected a decrease in ticket-related revenue, which includes season-ticket sales and related seat donations (TECH Fund), of 16 percent for the 2010-11 season, to $3,863,174. Those revenues were $4,868,195 in 2007-08, the first year of the TECH Fund, a per-seat donation program.

There are many reasons for the decline, which is something that six other schools in the ACC are experiencing this season. In October and November, the GTAA had a partner company survey season ticket-holders who had declined to renew. The No. 1 reason given for their decision was an inability to attend many games (36 percent). No. 2 was an inability to pay for the tickets (24 percent).

But the third and fourth reasons are water-cooler conversation topics for some fans who follow Tech sports: dissatisfaction with coach Paul Hewitt (22 percent) and the team's performance (10 percent), which reflects on the man leading the program.

In an e-mailed response to a list of questions, Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich agreed that there are numerous reasons why attendance has decreased, but declined to say what he thought the most important factor was. He also said that attendance is one of several factors he will consider when he conducts his annual review of Hewitt's performance after the season.

Tech needs a consolidated fan base because it will open the $45 million Hank McCamish Pavilion for the 2012-13 season. Radakovich said "it is extremely important" to get those fans back.

"No program can sustain a long-term loss of fan support," he said. "That is why we will do everything possible to create a level of confidence in our men's basketball program so that we will not only have a fan-friendly new arena to play in, but that we put a high quality product on the court."

The team's early-season struggles didn't help attendance. A season after Tech advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, this season's team lost at Kennesaw State in November and at Siena in December. The RPI-sinking loss to the crosstown Owls, which only recently became a Division I member, was particularly galling to many fans.

The decline in season-ticket sales, coupled with the early losses, has led to a decline in attendance at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Tech has averaged 6,022 fans per game, third-fewest in the ACC and the lowest since Hewitt was hired. The "Thrillerdome" has a capacity of 9,191.

Tech has reversed its fortunes recently, winning consecutive home games against North Carolina, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech in blowouts. The Yellow Jackets (10-9, 3-3 ACC) will host Maryland on Sunday.

Target on Hewitt

Partially reflecting the GTAA's research, fans responding to a question on about why they no longer purchase season tickets said the reason is simple and singular:

"I quit plain and simple because of … Paul Hewitt," wrote Tony Martinez, a fan who said he held season tickets for six years before deciding not to renew for the 2009-10 season. "I think Hewitt is a good man, but he's never going to take us back to the top. He is done."

The fans' disappointment is in part because of the fondness they have for Hewitt's predecessor, Bobby Cremins. The most successful coach in Tech's history, Cremins took over in 1981 following two of the most disappointing years in the program's history, years in which the Jackets went 1-27 in their first two years in the ACC. It took Cremins four seasons to lead Tech to its first ACC championship. He left in 2000 after leading the Jackets to a 354-237 record and 10 NCAA tournaments in 19 seasons. The basketball court is named after him.

Hewitt has had comparable success, going 187-153 with five NCAA tournament appearances in 10 seasons. In the ACC, only North Carolina and Duke have gone to the NCAAs more frequently than the Jackets since the 2003-04 season.

Cremins won 59.9 percent of his games; Hewitt 55 percent. They differ in number of titles: Cremins won three ACC tournaments. Hewitt hasn't won any, though they have played for it twice, most recently last season. Hewitt also led his team to a runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament in 2004, a game Cremins never reached.

Nevertheless, fans of all stripes who once were dedicated to the team have left it, from students who graduated years ago, to recent graduates to current enrollees. One fan took it a step further.

"I finally stopped buying football season tickets last year after 44 years solely because of Hewitt's incompetence," wrote Ray Easterlin, who bought basketball season tickets for 25 years before he said he stopped early in Hewitt's tenure. "It was the only way I could impress on [President Bud] Peterson and Radakovich how strongly I felt about Hewitt. He is an embarrassment."

There are many fans still squarely behind Hewitt, including Radakovich. Part of that is because he said he believes in his coach even if the team hasn't had the same success since losing to Connecticut in the championship game.

"There have been highs and lows, just as there would be with any six-year period of time in a collegiate sport," Radakovich said. "I'll take those into account as well as the potential opportunities for success. As with all of our sports, our performance expectations are high. My assessment and evaluation will continue through the basketball season. It is still a work in progress."

Money game

Part of that belief also has to do with an unprecedented contract given to Hewitt by Radakovich's predecessor, Dave Braine.

After Hewitt led the Jackets to the NCAA championship game in 2003-04, a singular achievement in Tech's history, Braine rewrote the terms of Hewitt's contract. The new terms include a rollover provision that automatically renews the deal every year. It is in effect a lifetime contract.

What is most aggravating to some Tech fans is that it includes a $7.25 million buyout clause. Should Radakovich decide to fire Hewitt, and Hewitt didn't want to negotiate lesser terms, Tech would not only have to pay for the buyout, but also be forced to find another estimated $5-7 million to hire another coach. The GTAA's operating budget is approximately $55 million. It has annual debts of $7.2 million. That debt will increase to as much as $13.7 million in 2014 because a $90 million bond is in the process of being issued that will pay for the renovated basketball arena, among other things.

"They can do all the coliseum remodels they want, but the school’s $$ could be put to better use by buying out the outrageous contract that we were saddled with by Dave Braine and cutting the cord with CPH once and for all," wrote Larry W. Allen, a fan who said he held season tickets for 23 years before deciding not to renew for this season. "If they don’t, then they will see a half-empty or worse newly-remodeled coliseum in the years to come."

Tech's players said they have noticed the lack of fans, but don't feel more pressure to help fill AMC.

"As you can see now, with this three-game home winning streak, I guarantee there will be more people there on Sunday," senior guard Maurice Miller said. "It's up to us. You win games, you fill the seats up. We just thank the fan who are showing up even though we got off to a rough start."

The GTAA spends between $15,000 and 20,000 annually promoting the team. With six home games remaining, Radakovich said Tech will begin to increase its promotional efforts, which is what they have done the past few years.

Hewitt also has spent more time on campus in January trying to rally the students. Their support has visibly increased during each game of the recent winning streak.

"If you come out the rest of the season, you'll see a young team getting better," he said.


In the seats

Georgia Tech's average attendance at men's basketball games has risen and fallen during the tenure of coach Paul Hewitt. (The capacity at Alexander Memorial Coliseum is 9,191.)

2011: 6,022

2010: 7,979

2009: 7,477

2008: 9,191

2007: 9,191

2006: 9,191

2005: 9,191

2004: 8,231

2003: 8,565

2002: 7,003

2001: 7,485

Source: NCAA