In terms of wins and losses, this hasn’t been a banner year for the Butler men’s basketball team. At least it isn’t measuring up to the results of Brad Stevens’ last two teams.
Of course, there’s still time to turn this season into another shining moment for the Bulldogs program. Butler tips off Tuesday night in the opener of the Horizon League tournament by hosting Wright State.
In terms of attendance, though, the Bulldogs have already posted a victory. Butler has drawn more fans to Hinkle Fieldhouse this year than it has in nearly 50 years.
Butler attracted 115,232 fans to Hinkle for 16 regular season home games, averaging 7,202 through the turnstiles. The last time the Bulldogs are believed to have attracted that many fans was in 1964, when Butler averaged more than 8,000 per game. Butler attendance records from 1965 to 1969 are incomplete.
The team’s following has been on the upswing for several years. Last year, Butler men’s team averaged 7,178 per game, marking the first time the team drew more than 100,000 fans to Hinkle for the regular season in four decades. During the 2009-10 season average attendance was 6,852.
This year marks the sixth consecutive season Butler has led the Horizon League in regular-season attendance.
Not long ago, you could have fired a cannon in Hinkle Fieldhouse during a men’s game with little fear of hitting anyone. Consider, the Bulldogs drew an average of 5,516 fans per game during the 2008-09 season and just 3,593 during the 1995-96 season.
Butler this year sold out season tickets for the best seats in the house despite a per-game price tag of $91.67 for courtside and $30.50 for lower-level tickets plus a priority-points system that had many ticket buyers paying a few bucks more per game.
“Obviously, our success and runs in the NCAA tournament have helped,” said Mike Freeman, Butler associate athletic director. “Having more games on television both nationally—on the ESPN channels—and locally—on WNDY-TV—has brought about more exposure. Also, we have focused more effort on season ticket and group sales, with both increasing each of the last couple years.”
It would be easy to say Butler needs to keep Coach Brad Stevens to continue its growth. Already this year the rumors about Stevens have started. Illinois is reported to be the most recent team interested in hiring him. Of course the Bulldog faithful want Stevens to stay, and his salary has been amped up in recent years to assure hiring him away won't be easy. But Butler has shown it can grow and prosper despite coaching changes. And the continued commitment by university brass is encouraging.
James Danko, who became Butler’s president Aug. 1, wants to use the men’s basketball team as a key marketing tool. That’s a path Danko’s predecessor Bobby Fong took, as well.
“I’ve seen how leveraging athletics can lift the image of the entire university,” said Danko, former dean of Villanova University’s business school. “I absolutely see the athletic department, and the men’s basketball team in particular, as critical in doing that here.”