Commentary: What comes first: energetic students or good basketball?


DePaul’s student attendance has grown in the move to Wintrust, but growth relative to low attendance numbers at Allstate isn’t going to fill the Demon Deck anytime soon. (Richard Bodee | The DePaulia)

There’s good news for DePaul’s men’s basketball program: student attendance is up 165 percent on average at Wintrust Arena compared to last season at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, according to DePaul’s athletic department.

But according to the laws of mathematics — and the state of Blue Demon basketball — a 165 percent uptick might be a pretty hollow statistic.

If you talk to anyone in the athletic department about the ins and outs of Wintrust, you’re more than likely to find yourself in a conversation about helping students engage with their school’s biggest-budget sport.

Karen Loiacono, associate athletics director for marketing and licensing says the arena’s proximity to CTA stops is a key part of the increase in student attendance.

Prior to the 2017-18 season opener on Nov. 11, the lengthy trip to Allstate had the DePaul student section looking like the nosebleeds at Guaranteed Rate Field when the White Sox play the Twins at noon on a Wednesday — nearly empty with a sprinkling of die-hard maniacs.   

Now just a couple blocks from the Cermak Green Line stop and a small hike from the Cermak/Chinatown Red Line stop, students in Lincoln Park are roughly 30 minutes from men’s home games.

“20 minutes if you catch a train right away,” Lioacono said.

The arena is also new, which by itself increases demand, but relative numbers like the 165 percent increase reported by DePaul’s athletic department don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Imagine that DePaul averaged 20 students per game last year at Allstate and then saw that number grow 200 percent at Wintrust. There would still only be an average of 60 students per game in a 1,500 seat student section, which, depending on how you look at it, is a negligible difference.

Students don’t pay for tickets, so hard numbers — absolute and relative — really don’t matter in financial terms for the university.  The value of a student section is all about energy and the eye test, which would require massive improvements in student attendance and potentially be the difference for a long struggling program like DePaul.

“(The noise and energy of the crowd) is one thing that fan bases don’t really understand,” Former associate head coach Rick Carter said. “I don’t think they give themselves enough credit for the impact that they have on a game.”

He likened the student section to a DJ at a nightclub, feeding energy to the people on the dance floor.

“If you ever go out to a nightclub (and) they’re not playing music, no one is going to dance,” Carter said. “But when there is energy, it’s loud and the bass is bumping, everybody is having a great time.”

Carter says the more you cheer on your team, the better they are going to perform for their fans.

“I think a lot of fan bases sit in the crowd and complain about what they don’t have or what (the coaches) should be doing,” Carter said. “I think that if they find a way to just cheer their team on, they will be in a much better place — everyone involved will be in a much better place.”

As much as DePaul fans like to take to twitter to blast athletic director Jean Lenti-Ponsetto her department for creating an unwatchable basketball team, there isn’t a lot they can do from an administrative perspective.

Ponsetto says DePaul has a few things working against the program in terms of growing the rate of student attendance.

Many DePaul students commute into the city for school, making it difficult to coordinate attending basketball games on a regular basis.  DePaul students also tend to hold jobs and internships while enrolled in classes, leaving little time to support school athletic events.

The basketball season also comes at an inconvenient time for the Blue Demons. Ponsetto says while most schools start the NCAA season with a month of school before break, DePaul students take finals and head home shortly after the season opener.

“Even when we were No. 1 in the nation, there were still less than 100 students at some games at Rosemont,” Ponsetto said.

Sophomore Joey Fremgen attended DePaul’s opener against Notre Dame at Wintrust and said he could see the potential for a robust and influential student section.

“When (DePaul) goes on a run, you can tell how loud the arena can get,” Fremgen said. “You could feel how invested the fan’s were in the team.”

Loiacono says around 1,300 students signed up for the Notre Dame game, but that far exceeds any game in the years before and any game since — and that probably how it going to continue, even if DePaul finds themselves ranked in the next few years.

So, in Carter’s words: “If you’re waiting for (DePaul) to get a big win, and you think they are going to, then don’t miss out on it,” Carter said. “Come help us get a win.”