EUGENE — Something was wrong with Oregon basketball.

There’s never been much of a problem on the court. The Ducks are currently on the second-best six-year stretch in Oregon history.

Dana Altman has turned around a program that went 24-39 in Ernie Kent’s final two seasons and morphed the Ducks into a perennial conference contender.

And last season may have been Altman’s best performance yet. With just three players on scholarship entering the season, the Ducks were predicted to finish eighth in the conference. Instead, after postseason hopes looked bleak, the Ducks rattled off wins in 11 of 12 games down the stretch, advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament title game and beat Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament.

But running parallel with the Ducks’ exciting season was dreadful attendance.

Even as college basketball attendance nationwide was up slightly from 2013-14, the Ducks’ average home attendance fell to 6,209, the team’s lowest figure since 1992. It was a 20 percent decline from just a year prior, often leaving the 12,364-seat Matthew Knight Arena quiet.  

Athletic department officials acknowledged that something had to change. This year, the Ducks were expected to once again be good and the university wanted to make a concerted effort to make sure those in Eugene were around to see it.

“With the success (on the court) we’ve had, I think that speaks for itself,” said Craig Pintens, Oregon’s senior associate athletic director in charge of marketing. “Now, when we’re in arena, we got to do a great job of entertaining people.”

Pintens can’t really pinpoint the cause of the 2014-15 drop. It might have been a perfect storm in a sense.

The previous summer was filled with negative publicity as three players were kicked off the team following a sexual assault investigation and Altman was dragged through the wringer.

Left with few players fans recognized, the Ducks weren’t expected to be good. Then, once they began to play well, the schedule didn’t do any favors. Two of Oregon’s attractive home games — Oregon State and Arizona — came while the football program was in its march to the national championship game. Those two games, premier matchups from Pintens’ perspective, combined to draw just more than 16,000 fans.

When played later a year earlier, those two home games combined for more than 22,000 fans.

Oregon’s largest attendance of the 2014-15 season was 10,725 for a February upset of Utah. No other game eclipsed 9,000.

The Ducks, who finished second in the Pac-12 standings, were seventh in attendance. While Oregon’s football program has sold out more than 100 games in a row, the basketball program hasn’t found such success since the Civil War in 2014.

The Ducks responded by dropping ticket prices by an average of 34 percent this spring. This summer, they sold a special ticket package called the “Lucenti Experience,” which gives away the top available seats to ticket holders before the game. Those tickets sold out in minutes, Pintens said.

But if the Ducks truly want to fix their attendance problems, Pintens said, it starts with UO students. Basketball can’t draw from Portland like football does, and weekday start times aren’t attractive for north-living alumni.

Brian Tovey, a 2003 Oregon graduate, is a football season ticket holder living in Vancouver. He’s been to one basketball game this season.

“I think it’s a great venue,” Tovey said. “Parking is a bit of a problem. I think Altman has done a hell of a job, and the style of play is fun to watch. It’s unfortunate that they can’t fill that place up when you see mid-major programs selling out 10,000-plus arenas.

“To draw during football season is tough unless hoops can schedule those Friday night games or Sunday day games. Other than that, you just need some tougher nonconference home dates. Baylor was a good start, but was on a Monday.”  

That, in part, is why Pintens said UO can’t rely on Portland-area fans to help the overall problem. The main area that decides whether the arena is bumping or barren comes from Eugene/Springfield.

And the easiest resource, Pintens said, is campus.

“Our attendance issues that we’ve had really start with the students,” Pintens said. “If we can attract them to games, that will attract the general public out to the game.

“It starts with a strong student section…If we’re not attracting students out to games, we’re not attracting other fans, either.”

The Ducks attracted 982 students a game last season during Pac-12 play, down from 1,556 in 2013-14 and 1,933 in 2012-13. Ideally, Pintens would like the number to be at 2,000. In this season’s top-25 matchup against Baylor, a game that tipped off at 8:30 p.m. on a Monday night, the Ducks drew 7,718 fans — the largest crowd this season — and what Pintens estimated to be about 2,500 students.

He was happy with the turnout, especially for a Monday night. The Ducks were able to market that game as the first top-25 nonconference matchup in Matthew Knight Arena history and fans were given Dana Altman-themed T-shirts.

Attendance has dwindled for the rest of the nonconference schedule, although that was to be expected with a slate of Valparaiso, Arkansas State, Fresno State, UC Irvine and Long Beach State. For the season, Oregon has averaged 6,020 fans per game — sixth in the Pac-12.

Take out Baylor, and Oregon has averaged 5,777 fans in the other seven home games. Last year in a nine-game home nonconference schedule that didn’t feature any top-level games, the Ducks averaged 5,281 fans.

So there’s improvement. Now, UO hopes it carries over to the Pac-12 portion of the schedule, when attendance generally rises with better opponents and higher stakes.

Mike Morley is a senior at Oregon who transferred to Eugene last year. He’s been to a handful of games this season and said the primary factor for him is the quality on the court. 

“I got a few friends where, it’s not as big of a deal as football where people just drop things and go,” the 21-year-old Southern California native said. “It’s more like, ‘We got nothing to do tonight, let’s go. There’s a basketball game tonight, let’s go head down to the arena.”

These are the type of fans that UO wants to target the most, Pintens said. They might not go to every game, but it sometimes wins as an option.

Despite Oregon’s winning ways on the court, including this season’s 10-2 start, Morley said he doesn’t really notice Ducks basketball on campus.

“I see the basketball players around a lot and I don’t feel like they’re so much a part of Oregon life as the football players,” he said. “Football players are the ones that are the celebrities. It may just be that football is the dominant sport. It’s probably the same with basketball at Duke or Kentucky.”

And Altman isn’t exactly the type to step on a box in the middle of campus and yell for attention.

Nobody argues about Altman’s basketball IQ, but marketing isn’t up his alley. He’s cautious in interviews, rarely saying anything that would draw attention to himself, and he asks the same from his players.

When asked earlier this season whether they were trying to make strides in promoting the program, Altman shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m worried more about my team and hopefully the wins will take care of that.”

Pintens said that’s the point.  

“Our job is to sell the program. That’s not Dana’s job,” Pintens said. “His job is to do what he does, which is lead an outstanding program, and he does that extremely well as evidenced on the court.”

It is, however, in contrast to some other coaches’ approach. Second-year Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle has been as visible as he could be since taking over the Beavers’ program. Oregon women’s head coach Kelly Graves goes out of his way to relate to the fans. After the Ducks’ early-season upset of North Carolina on the road, Graves fired off more than 40 Tweets thanking fans. He opened the doors to reporters on basketball signing day and invited Eugene residents to take in his Haunted House around Halloween.

But that’s just not who Altman is, Pintens said.

“From a promoting standpoint, he’s not Bruce Pearl,” Pintens said. “He’s not going to take his shirt off and paint his chest at a women’s basketball game. I can’t see that happening. Kelly might do the reverse. That’s just not Dana’s personality.”

And Pintens said that’s fine, seeing as Altman has already given the program a winning base and he doesn’t believe that the PR hit the Ducks took last summer is lasting.

When Morley transferred to Oregon before his junior year, the news of the players being expelled was still fresh.    

“It was the first thing I heard about when I was coming here,” he said. “It didn’t really deter me too much from being a fan. Joseph Young was there. It was cool to go watch him.”  

Young, now with the Indiana Pacers, would go on to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year award and the Ducks won 24-plus games for the fourth season in a row.

And while winning is a strong foundation, it’s something that is out of Pintens’ control, which is partially why he said the school took the initiative to lower ticket prices. Pintens said that the Ducks took about a $250,000 hit with the price drop and that season ticket numbers have been about the same as last year — which Pintens called “disappointing.”

Still, he said it was one of the necessary moves for the long-term health of the program. Nobody believes that Matthew Knight Arena will turn into Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium overnight, but with Oregon rising on the court, the university is hoping that it’s taking the right steps in turning Eugene into a town that appreciates high-level hoops.

“I think everybody can get to that point. You can create that atmosphere,” Pintens said. “The beauty of attracting students out to games is that if they have a commitment to go to games while they’re here, and when they graduate, if they’re still living in the area, they now have a commitment to go to games after they graduate.

“That’s the beauty of marketing to students is, as well with that atmosphere they can provide, eventually you’re developing lifelong fans and an affinity for Oregon basketball.”

— Tyson Alger
talger@oregonian.com
@tysonalger

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