The turnstile attendance for the home opener against Bethune Cookman on Nov. 7 was just 1,018. DePaul won the game 80-58. (SHANE RENE | THE DEPAULIA)
The turnstile attendance for the home opener against Bethune Cookman on Nov. 7 was just 1,018. DePaul won the game 80-58.

SHANE RENE | THE DEPAULIA

If you build it, they still might not come

January 28, 2019

There are certainly a lot of questions worth asking about Wintrust Arena, even if few of them have very clear answers. But one thing that is clear is this: the arena itself is pretty awesome.

With a little more than 10,000 seats and standing room, you can’t find a bad seat in the house. The upper deck doesn’t feel too estranged from the action, and the lower bowl feels comfortable and close to the floor; the concession stands are spread out conveniently, and it’s not big enough to get lost in.

It looks nice from the perspective of a student athlete, too. Visiting coaches from the Big East and non-conference schools often rave about the arena in postgame press conferences. The locker rooms and player facilities would impress even the most pampered recruits, and there is plenty of space in the rafters for players to imagine their own jerseys (and championship banners for those with short memory).    

It’s new, it’s clean, it’s fancy, and it’s built for basketball. But for now, the people just don’t seem that interested.

Five of DePaul’s nine home games during non-conference play saw less than 1,000 butts in the seats, and it’s not hard to imagine why. If you took a peek at top half DePaul’s schedule this year, you probably thought to yourself, “I didn’t know that was a D1 school,” or “who?” about 5 times. Those were the five games.

Front-loading their schedule with a handful of easy wins could be good for the Blue Demons. Racking up a few decisive victories early in the year can give a team confidence and an opportunity to develop younger talent. It will also service Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto and her Head Coach Dave Leitao who both need wins and an improved record to renew whatever faith is left in their leadership.

On the other hand, tipping off the season with just over 1,000 people at home is pretty pathetic, no matter who you are playing. We want fans to come watch DePaul, not the other guys, so every time the other guy isn’t worth watching, Blue Demons fans are reminded of just far the program has fallen.

“The last 15 years have really been tough [as a season ticket holder],” Logan Simios, a season ticket holder for more than half a century, said. “Going to the games where there isn’t a big crowd like there used to be is difficult because there is no energy in the arena like there used to be in the glory days of the team.”

Associate Athletics Director for Ticket Sales and Operations Marty Murphy said season ticket sales are trending up from the team’s time at Allstate Arena, but admitted that the program lost some season ticket holders after their debut season at Wintrust.

Season ticket holders like Simios will likely stay with their team because that’s what die-hard fans do. But every team has those fans. The Blue Demons need bandwagon fans, and those fans need one thing that DePaul doesn’t have: a winner.

There are reasons to be optimistic, though. As easy as it is to trash Leitao in the final five minutes of a basketball game, it’s hard to knock his recent recruiting efforts. A top-20 class led by five-star power forward Romeo Weems and local point guard Markese Jacobs will draw the interest of Chicago basketball fans and if they meet the hype, filling Wintrust won’t be too tall a task.

Student attendance offers a unique challenge for the Blue Demon ticket office. Murphy said the first part of the season is always difficult for student attendance, as most students return home for winter break just as the season  kicks into gear. Still, with the majority or DePaul’s student hailing from the greater Chicago area, one would expect a little more love from the student body.

Winning will also solve the student problem, and an improved non-conference record paired with an encouraging start to conference play (the Blue Demons have been ranked as high as third in the Big East this season) could help move the needle by the end of the season.

For the meantime, I would encourage the athletic department to keep doing what has worked — which mostly means cheap beer. $2 beer nights offered at a handful of games this year have visibly improved student attendance and will help even more as students catch on to the promotion. And to all of those people who don’t like the idea of using alcohol to drive student attendance, I don’t know what to tell you. The students jumping on $2 beers at Wintrust are gonna spend weekday and weekend nights drinking in their dorms and apartments or drinking at Wintrust. I think we’d rather have them at Wintrust.

For now, though, the energy in Wintrust remains flat.

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