‘We got to win’: Fans have returned to Wintrust Arena, but attendance remains lower than previous years

As the clock expired, DePaul sophomore forward David Jones could not hold back his excitement any longer. He raised his finger to the air, a large smile filled his face and he went to celebrate with his teammates after Blue Demons knocked off No. 20 Seton Hall at Wintrust Arena on Jan. 13.

That victory marked DePaul’s first Big East win under head coach Tony Stubblefield and the program’s first signature win of the year.

It sounds like a bright moment for a struggling program. But there is one problem — only 557 people attended that game, the lowest attendance number for a DePaul men’s basketball game at Wintrust Arena since 2017.

A month later, DePaul recorded an attendance of 777 for its men’s basketball game against Creighton on Feb. 17, which marked the program’s second-lowest number for a conference game since in 2017.

The low numbers for the games against Seton Hall and Creighton can both be somewhat explained due to the first game being rescheduled for a 4 p.m. start on a Thursday and the second game due to a 9 p.m. start during a snowstorm in Chicago.

Even so, DePaul is averaging the fewest number of fans attending men’s basketball games this season since Wintrust Arena opened five years ago, according to records obtained by The DePaulia that reveal attendance numbers up until the Feb. 17 home game.

“Considering all the mitigating factors of Covid-19 still caring for mask mandates, vaccination requirements or not, not placing any blame or excuses, but every one of those mitigating factors segregated some level of the population that did like it or didn’t like it,” DePaul athletic director DeWayne Peevy said.

Real attendance, which is determined by the amount of tickets that were scanned at the arena, has hit a four-year low. This season, DePaul is averaging 1,804 in real attendance per game for men’s basketball games, which does not include the Blue Demons’ game against St. John’s on Sunday.

In the last three years when fans have been allowed into Wintrust Arena — with last season’s home games being played behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic — the previous low for real attendance was at 2,045 per game during the 2018-19 season.

DePaul’s non-conference game against Loyola in December was the highest reported real attendance this year, with 5,352 tickets scanned at Wintrust Arena. No conference game this year has reported over 4,000 scanned in tickets.

Nate Burleyson

Paid attendance, which is calculated through the amount of tickets printed, sold and distributed, is also lower this season — but there is a caveat. Unlike previous years where DePaul included the entire student section — 1500 tickets — into the calculation for paid attendance, the athletic department is no longer doing that this season.

This season, however, DePaul is only including the number of student tickets that were reserved, which draws the number of paid attendance down from previous years.

DePaul is averaging a little bit more than 3,000 in paid attendance this season, which is significantly lower than the 2018-19 season — 4,490.

DePaul averages the fewest number for paid attendance in the Big East this season, with several teams in the conference drawing more than 10,000 fans per game.

“I won’t say it’s frustrating, but it’s something that I always keep in my mind,” DePaul senior guard Javon Freeman-Liberty said. “We are struggling right now, but I feel like once we get over this hump we will be good. We have the supporters we always have there, plus new ones.”

Winning plays a vital role in drawing more fans to games. DePaul is 14-14 overall and 5-13 in the Big East this season. Since moving to Wintrust Arena, the Blue Demons are 10-25 in home games where fans have been allowed to attend.

“At the end of the day, the name of the game is you got to win basketball games,” Stubblefield said. “The more you win, the more people come out. So, we got to put a winning product out on the floor. We got to win.

“If you win, people in Chicago will come out and support you.”

The pandemic has also not helped with attendance this year, according to Peevy. In particular, group sales are down this season due to some tickets having to be refunded when the omicron variant started to surge in December.

Peevy also said that 54 percent of the people who bought or reserved a ticket ended up going to Wintrust Arena and having their ticket scanned this season. The previous high was at 58 percent during the 2019-20 season, per Peevy.

“My goal is to get that to 70 [percent] to start working for that area,” Peevy said. “So, I’m not pleased with 54 [percent], but considering everything that’s been this year, when [2019-20] was probably the most exciting season we’ve had in Wintrust because of the 12-1 stat, it makes me feel a little better about the percentage.”

Peevy also mentioned that DePaul had an 84 percent renewal rate for season tickets going back to the 2019-20 season.

The women’s basketball team is in its first full year playing at Wintrust Arena with fans in the stands. Before this year, the program split its home games between the McGrath-Phillips Arena and Wintrust Arena.

Doug Bruno’s team is averaging 537 in real attendance this season, according to numbers obtained by The DePaulia.

Logan Simois is a season-ticket holder and has been attending men’s basketball games since he was 5 years old. He says he wants to see DePaul continue to improve how Wintrust Arena looks and build up the atmosphere.

But the ultimate indicator for him to improve attendance is simple: winning.

“They are going to have to do what we have always talked about — is the commitment there to go after Big East-type players and win,” he said. “They have to compete for the top three spots and they have to be in the NCAA Tournament.”

Patrick Sperry is also a lifelong DePaul fan and has graduated from the university two times. Besides putting out a winning product, he also remains disappointed in the parking and concessions at Wintrust Arena.

“The parking situation is too expensive,” he said. “The concessions are horrendously slow… but even in those situations where there is a sparse crowd, it’s sometimes really long to get food or drinks.”

As DePaul enters the final week of the regular season, Peevy is looking forward to growing attendance for next season. He mentioned that the athletic department only had a full marketing staff for men’s and women’s basketball since February due to departures a couple of months ago.

“I do think there’s things we can do to get into a point of trying to fill that lower bowl every night,” he said. “But to get to a point where you max out Wintrust, you got to play well.”