(Andrew Hattersley | The DePaulia)

That empty feeling: Despite move to city, men’s basketball attendance remains low

February 26, 2018

DePaul’s debut basketball season in the South Loop has been rough — the team is currently at risk of finishing dead last in the Big East standings for the eighth time in the last decade.  But tough competition, injuries and streaky offense aren’t the only ghosts to follow the Blue Demons to Wintrust Arena.

Since moving from a cavernous 17,000 seats at Allstate to a cozy 10,000 at Wintrust, DePaul’s men’s basketball team is still struggling to fill the stands, continuing to rely heavily upon ranked opponents and traveling fans to draw sizable crowds. 

Through DePaul’s home game against Creighton on Feb. 7, the Blue Demons had drawn an average of 2,993 people to their games, including two that saw fewer than 1,000 people, according to attendance numbers obtained by The DePaulia through a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (commonly known as “McPier”), the quasi-governmental agency that partnered with the university to build and operate Wintrust.

Despite expectations that bringing the Blue Demons into the city would attract more fans to home games, attendance at Wintrust has seen just a modest uptick with only three games eclipsing half capacity (about 5,000), including Saturday’s game against Marquette. Last season at Allstate, DePaul saw some of the lowest attendance numbers in program history, averaging less than 2,000 in turnstile attendance.

Turnstile attendance refers to the number of people who actually show up to each game. Attendance figures reported in the final box scores at DePaul games refer to paid attendance, which measures the number of people who bought or received free tickets whether or not they actually enter the arena on game day.

Through Creighton’s visit to Wintrust on Feb. 7, the Blue Demons are averaging just under 6,000 in paid attendance, another modest increase from Allstate where they averaged under 5,500 in paid attendance.

Early estimates calculated by HVS, a New York City based sports and entertainment consulting firm hired by McPier when the Wintrust project began, projected DePaul’s men’s basketball team would account for less than 50 percent of annual turnstile attendance at Wintrust. The firm projected an average attendance of 9,500 at 16 DePaul men’s basketball home games, totaling 152,000 of the arena’s 370,000 projected attendees.

DePaul’s athletic director, Jean Lenti Ponsetto, said DePaul had nothing to do with that projection, and it was never a target for the university.  Thomas Hazinski, the managing director at HVS and author of the feasibility study, did not return the DePaulia’s request for an interview.

“We have a game-by-game projection that we are looking at because we know that we are going to get a different number for Villanova than we would for Miami of Ohio,” Ponsetto said. “I would say in almost every circumstance, even in a good number of our non-conference games we exceeded the number we thought we were gonna get.”   

Emails obtained by The DePaulia show that McPier employees, including Wintrust Arena’s Assistant General Manager for Entertainment David Kennedy, took those projections seriously.

One email from a senior analyst, responding to an assistant controller who was requesting attendance numbers to give McPier’s insurance provider, carried a document outlining projected month-by-month attendance numbers for Wintrust. The address line of all related emails included Kennedy.

According to that document, McPier projected 38,000 in turnstile attendance at DePaul men’s basketball home games in the months of November, December, January and February and 9,500 in March (only one game).

DePaul only played three games in November (including one exhibition game) and February — hitting 38,000 monthly fans would require all three to exceed capacity.  The six games across December would need an average of 6,333 and four games in January would need to match HVS’s projection of 9,500.

McPier’s FOIA office told The DePaulia that because Wintrust is currently in its first year of operation, those projections were made without the benefit of historical data. However, at that time, the Blue Demons were still active at Allstate Arena, where low attendance highlighted a waning interest in the program.   

“Since opening in October, the new, state-of-the-art Wintrust Arena has hosted a wide range of public, corporate sports and entertainment events, and has hosted more than 50,000 visitors into the South Loop neighborhood” Kennedy said. “(…) We are very pleased with the arena’s performance to date.”

Fortunately for DePaul, the anchor tenant agreement between Wintrust and McPier takes much of the financial burden off of the university.  The school will receive 100 percent of attendance revenues and pay none of the operating costs associated with the arena. So, as of now, it doesn’t look like the school will be fighting to break even each year.

In an interview with the DePaulia, Ponsetto said the university made sure that the project would not fall on the back of student tuition.  Instead, the money used to pay for DePaul’s share of the arena — which includes $82.5 million in building costs and $445,000 in annual rent — was generated by the Athletic Department through corporate sponsorships, naming rights, fundraising and paid attendance, she said.

When DePaul’s lump-sum payment of $82.5 million was due in June 2016, the university funneled money from the School of Music’s project to build new facilities.   

“I am really proud to say that as we are now into year one, we’ve met our fundraising goal, we’ve met our corporate sponsorship goal (and) we’re probably going to exceed that,” Ponsetto said. “We are probably going to exceed our fundraising goal because we are continuing to fundraise.”

Ponsetto says the school has exceeded the ticket sales revenue goals outlined in their budget. Because DePaul is a private school, it is under no obligation to release budgetary information.   

While the financial implications of low attendance at Wintrust may be limited, that doesn’t mean attendance doesn’t matter.  In fact, quality turnstile attendance figures have potentially big implications on the success of Blue Demon basketball.

Former associate head coach Rick Carter, who resigned in June 2017 after two seasons with the team to pursue a private business venture, said some of DePaul’s low attendance woes can be traced to one thing: winning games.

Carter, who also coached at Xavier University, said Xavier’s elite status following NCAA tournament runs spurred “bandwagon fans” — people without a firm tie to the university that become fans after watching the teams rise to relevance — to consistently attend games.  He says DePaul need to generate a bandwagon following in order to grow their average attendance.

“Almost every university has them,” Carter said. “The die-hards are there every single game.”

Likewise, former Chicago Tribune sports writer Mike Conklin, who covered DePaul from the late 70’s into the 80’s, says he believes DePaul made the same mistake with Wintrust as they did with Allstate, placing the arena in a relatively inaccessible location. An arena position outside of the city is only slightly improved by a new arena in a traffic heavy downtown Chicago, he said.

Carter also said fans have the ability to help teams turn games around, comparing fans — especially students — to a DJ in a nightclub.

“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.

“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. 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.”

In theory Wintrust could serve as a recruiting magnet; giving the coaches some bling to flash at starry-eyed, top-tier recruits — the key ingredient to a successful rebuild.

“Wintrust gives us something to sell to recruits,” Carter said. “You can take a kid through the arena and he can imagine his jersey in the rafters.”

It looked like Wintrust might pay off in a big way when Tyger Campbell stunned the NCAA basketball community last May with a verbal commitment to DePaul.  Then, this past September, Campbell reopened his recruitment and eventually found his way to UCLA over DePaul.

Ponsetto says the program has seen more recruiting offers turn into official visits — which is a step in the right direction, but far from evidence that the recruits will stick to Wintrust.

According to Carter, the biggest selling point on DePaul for Campbell is the city — top-tier recruits want national exposure, which Campbell could get at both DePaul and UCLA.  The deciding factor, he says, is simple: UCLA has a recent history of winning.

Written by Shane René, with contributions from Conner McEleney, Ryan Witry, Wahaj Khan and Demarco Trammell. Graphics by Ally Zacek.

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  • M

    mike maloneyMar 25, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    JPL has to go. One mistake after another. Wainwright. Purnell. and bringing back Leito were disasters. I attended two games this year. A lousy atmosphere for both games. It is NOT the Arena however. The Arena is very nice and the site lines are terriffic. The problem is the product on the floor. If Depaul was finishing 12 -6 or 11-7 in the conference I believe the place would be jumping. As it is 3-15 or 2-16 is not going to cut it.

  • J

    janet knipperMar 12, 2018 at 7:29 pm

    I attend women’s basketball and softball when I can and I see very, very few students attending those winning programs that are on campus. I don’t think DePaul students identify much with their athletic teams. So, regardless of the venue, I am not sure students will make much effort to attend anything. True fans would support the men’s team regardless of their ranking. If they had some support, maybe it would energize the team. It can work both ways. Women’s teams have had to endure few in the stands for a long time. The student body is partly to blame since they need to care before they complain.

  • B

    Barry SchneiderMar 3, 2018 at 4:43 pm

    While Wintrust is not an ideal location ,winning will bring the fans. Not complicated, a few 4 star recruits with a good coach can turn the program around in a hurry, The average DePaul recuit is 2.63 stars, not competitve for a Big East Program.
    Would Marquette, Georgetown, Villavona administrations put up with 11 years of pathetic basketball? We all know the answer to this question, The AD would have been gone 6 years ago. DePaul has the WORST conference record over the last 11 years than ANY team in country,.
    One person is responsible- JLP. Until she resigns (won’t happen) or is fired (we can only hope) the futility will continue.
    DePaul is good school in a great city, we can do better.

  • J

    Joseph BourellyMar 2, 2018 at 9:34 pm

    DePaul needs to first of all create a good experience for fans at home games. I attended the Notre Dame game this year and while almost filled to capacity, the vibe was very bizarre, almost quiet as a church at times. I also attended the Delaware State game which probably had 500 people in attendance. A DJ playing hip-hop, house and pop music would add some noise to the arena and improve the atmosphere for sure. I also noticed the size of the band is pretty small and it was barely audible in the quiet arena for both games. Also, DePaul has to begin somewhere in terms of putting butts in the seats, so until they put a better quality team on the court, it should be giving away at least 3,000 seats per game to school kids via their schools. Why not develop a formal program / partnership with local catholic and public schools. Perhaps the tickets could be a reward for good attendance, grades or used for field trips. Corporations would totally sponsor something like this. I saw the women’s program did something similar for the Loyola game this year and it appeared to be a big success. Another idea, add a concert after some games with popular Chicago artists. I’m sure if Chance The Rapper was performing after the Delaware State game, that place would have been packed. Organizing pre-game parties for alums and/or students at the adjoining hotel is another idea. C’mon DePaul, get creative!

  • C

    Calvin MercerMar 1, 2018 at 10:58 am

    The attendance is EXACTLY as I predicted. This was a scam of epic proportions by the deplorable leadership of the City of Chicago creating a false narrative of the income potential and tax dollars that would follow the Wintrust Arena. The ONLY option for DePaul to fill a stadium was to build in DePaul’s backyard in the Finkl redevelopment zone.

    As a fan of Depaul Basketball, I am no more likely to trek down to the McPier wasteland than I am to go to the Allstate arena. The fans, students, and community have already spoken – and they agree! Attendance sucks because it is just as inconvenient to their fan base as the Allstate Arena. I wonder if there was ever a scientific study or focus group targeted to Depaul supporters that suggested that the Wintrust location would succeed? If there was, please make it public! This was just another example of King Rahm cronyism.

    This city is so poorly managed, and I can’t wait to take my seven-figure income out of this city, and likely out of this State. This saddens me deeply, as this has been my home for 48 years, but this political dysfunction is unsustainable. I refuse to stay and be an overtaxed taxpayer footing the bill.

  • J

    Joseph PanozzoMar 1, 2018 at 9:46 am

    DePaul basketball once was the most popular sport in Chicagoland under the Meyer family. Sadly, they are now irrelevant. What they need to do but they won’t because of egos is to get out of the Big East and join Loyola in the Missouri Valley Conference and compete against similar programs, plus rekindle a DePaul Loyola rivalry. They also need to get the Meyer family as active participants in the program. Joey can still coach. Then DePaul can be competitive and be able to put fans in the seats instead of wasting money like they are now.

    • J

      Joseph BourellyMar 2, 2018 at 10:02 pm

      DePaul makes too much money in Big East revenue sharing via that FOX Sports television deal to ever think about dropping down to Missouri Valley. When Northwestern was fielding terrible basketball and football teams for what felt like forever, nobody advocated them leaving the Big 10.

  • P

    Past Game AttendeeMar 1, 2018 at 9:10 am

    Location is bad, but, just as important – get out of the Big East as you don’t belong there in the first place. Join a mid-major conference and play teams with similar talent level. That may spur a few more wins to get things rolling again. Year after year at the bottom of BE does not help the cause at all.

    • J

      Joseph BourellyMar 2, 2018 at 9:57 pm

      DePaul gets a lot of money being in the Big East via that FOX Sports contract. Dropping down to Horizon League or Missouri Valley Conference is definitely not the answer. You think the program is irrelevant now, it would completely disappear doing such a thing. DePaul also gets a lot of exposure on television. I live in California and see them all the time on FS1. When was the last time Loyola, Northwestern or Illinois was on national television? Big East has best television contract in the country.

  • O

    Old AlumMar 1, 2018 at 8:48 am

    DePaul basketball is irrelevant.
    No one cares.
    Least of all, it appears, the AD.
    Too bad, eh?
    “Back in my day…”

  • B

    Bob CumbersMar 1, 2018 at 7:53 am

    Forget Ray Meyer and the glory days – that was the dark ages to current kids. This is simple – the location sucks for The STUDENTS who should be the priority fan base. No where in the article ior these comments did anyone mention the students. They provide the energy the support and the excitement. Not the mopes that drive in from the suburbs. Anyone tried to drive from Lincoln park campus to this location – you’ll do it once and then say forget it. This plan was doomed from the start – another stupid strong arm city hall sports move. Not as stupid as soldier field instead of a domed stadium that could accommodate Super Bowls and final fours but a smaller scale fiasco. Consultants cooking numbers who never held a basketball in their stupid life. Yeesh.

    • N

      NeatsMar 1, 2018 at 8:42 am

      Bob Cumbers, you are right that for DePaul students to attend a game, the location sucks. To which I would add that if DePaul had a winning team, the location would still be bad. DePaul students, largely a car-less group, often live in Lincoln Park. one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. They don’t need to leave their neighborhood to dine, or shop. But to go to a b-ball game, they not only leave their neighborhood, they must take multiple forms of public transportation and then make a 2-3 block walk to the arena or a pricey Uber or Lyft.
      On the south side.
      Where they have never been.
      And which they think is dangerous, maybe too dangerous to be worth going.

      When considering the arena location, did any one poll DePaul students, asking if they would make the trek? It doesn’t look like it.

    • J

      Joseph BourellyMar 2, 2018 at 9:52 pm

      Truth of the matter is prior to this year, the men’s team would play a few games per year in the women’s gym on campus, and it would still be half empty. Therefore, I don’t think the location is as bad as you think, definitely better than having to drive out to the airport. That was always a nightmare, even when DePaul had good teams.

  • D

    DeJordyMar 1, 2018 at 7:17 am

    Why would anyone have ever thought that a college basketball arena in that location for a lousy program would draw people? Folks who thought that are probably government types who think of McCormick as some kind of convenient location because they get driven there in government cars. Or wealthy people or don’t know what it’s like to get there by public transportation. Who is going to go through the hassle of going to McCormick Place to see a DePaul game? Very few people. What a boondoggle.

  • G

    GSHFeb 28, 2018 at 3:12 am

    Big East newbies Butler and Creighton were mid-majors yesterday. In Indianapolis and Omaha, Nebraska. Fewer students, smaller cities. Enthusiastic fan bases. They win.

    C’mon man, this is absurd. What AD in the United States wouldn’t be removed after this unprecedented ineptitude in hiring and producing a winner? It will not get better under present leadership .

    Go get smart, energetic go-getters to return men’s basketball to it’s rightful place among the elite. Big East, Chicago, new stadium. I’ll do it for half of JLP’s salary.

  • L

    Luke EnnoFeb 27, 2018 at 2:00 pm

    What is interesting to me is that DePaul actually has a long glorious track record of winning in men’s basketball. Ray Meyer helped build a very competitive product. At the time he retired in 1984, one could argue reasonably that DePaul was every bit as good if not better than a similarly-situated university, Duke. However, from that time forward, Duke went in one direction and DePaul slipped into the opposite direction. Still DePaul had quality players flowing through the program under Joey Meyer. I believe the stadium hopping and not having a good understanding of what DePaul had with the TV contract through WGN, etc., helped contribute to the downfall. In the 80s and 90s, DePaul had national attention through WGN as a superstation. My sincere hope is that DePaul legitimately turns around the program by winning because winning will reignite interest. DePaul is in a major conference. If Villanova and Marquette can win, DePaul has the ability to win as well.

  • C

    Concerned Alumni; Class of 1995Feb 26, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    Ponsetto needs to go. She has ruined this program? Why don’t they show up? We’re a losing program. Why are we a losing program? We hire losing coaches.

    Wainwright was retained after going 6-30 in the BE . . . only to be sacked after 15 games. A complete waste of a year in 2009-2010.

    2005–06 DePaul 12–15 5–11 T-13th
    2006–07 DePaul 20–14 9–7 T–7th NIT Quarterfinals
    2007–08 DePaul 11–19 6–12 T–12th
    2008–09 DePaul 9–24 0–18 16th
    2009–10 DePaul 7–8 0–3 (fired)

    Purnell was retained after going 9-63 in the BE in the first four years.

    2010–11 DePaul 7–24 1–17 16th
    2011–12 DePaul 12–19 3–15 16th
    2012–13 DePaul 11–21 2–16 15th
    2013–14 DePaul 12–21 3–15 10th
    2014–15 DePaul 12–20 6–12 T–7th

    Leitao was 85-95 when she brought him back.

    We need a winner, to hire winners. Ponsetto needs to go. Leitao needs to go. We need an AD from a winning culture. Ponsetto was burned when DL left the first time. Ask Xavier how they feel about losing coaches. They’ll tell you that Gillen, Prosser, Matta and Miller took them to the tournament every year. Gonzaga is #6. St. Mary’s is in the Top 20. Loyola is 25-6. Providence, Seton Hall, Creighton, etc. have all had success.

    Get rid of the losing culture. Hire winners.

    • J

      Joseph BourellyMar 2, 2018 at 9:44 pm

      This program needs an identity. Begin with recruiting a bunch of guys totally committed to defense. You don’t need 4 and 5 star recruits to do that, and a great defensive team is going to win some games and get the program back on the map and at least competitive in the Big East. Think Temple or Virginia basketball. Whenever you play them, you know scoring 60 points is a minor miracle.

  • G

    GSHFeb 26, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    Why on earth wouldn’t 9500 be a “target” or goal? Maybe if there was more fiscal accountability, the school would feel the same urgency as their peers.

    Rick Carter is absolutely right about the impact of “bandwagon” fans and his Xavier comparison an apt one. The Chicago metro-area has a population of 9.5mil., as compared to Cincinnati’s 2.1mil. There is hardly any competition in the area, yet DePaul is being embarrassed by (at least) Loyola. By contrast, there is no shortage of local competition for Xavier, which has the Bearcats in town and the always formidable Buckeyes bandwagon fans to contend with. Xavier is now ranked #3 in national polls, the same rank they hold in graduation rates for their student-athletes, behind only Duke and Stanford. The Musketeer’s have appeared in the Sweet 16 seven times since 2004, the Final 8 three. After a slew of winning coaches (Gillen, Prosser, Matta, Miller), Chris Mack took over in 2009. He’s compiled a record of 207-94 (.688) overall, 99-46 in conference play (.683) and 10-7 in the NCAA tournament (.588). In the 10 years under Mack’s stewartship, they have failed to eclipse the 20 wins mark only once (17 wins—year before X joined Big East). That program hasn’t missed in a VERY long. Their coaches are sought after commodities.

    DePaul’s excuses are far beyond tired. It’s Chicago, after all.. Tyger Campbell chose Chicago and then was forced to shun DePaul University. Devastating loss. Fans aren’t even mad at the kid, they understand.

    • J

      Joseph BourellyMar 2, 2018 at 9:40 pm

      Nobody should have expected he would choose DePaul over UCLA, but I disagree it was a devastating loss. Tyger Campbell is good but not a Marvin Bagley III kind of guy.