Fresno State has 20 wins in the bank for a fourth year in a row and is the only men’s basketball team in the Mountain West to have 10 or more conference wins five years running.
Yet the Bulldogs continue to struggle to generate much fan interest, renewing questions whether an athletic department struggling to support 21 sports programs has the staffing and resources to promote and market its teams.
With Senior Day on Saturday against San Jose State, guards Deshon Taylor and Braxton Huggins and forward Sam Bittner are likely to play in front of yet another underwhelming crowd at the Save Mart Center.
The numbers are sobering.
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Through 16 home games Fresno State has an announced total attendance of 91,099, or 5,694 per game counting tickets sold or distributed through trade-outs or promotions.
Fresno State would have to cram close to 12,000 into the Save Mart Center on Saturday to avoid setting a record-low average attendance at the 15,096-seat arena for the second year in a row and the fourth time in the past eight seasons.
Worse, the actual attendance at games this season is significantly lower – the number of tickets scanned at entry gates is 50,004, or just 3,125 per game.
Who’s missing? For starters, students.
Though tickets are free to Fresno State students and students can bring a guest at no charge, only 4,947 have attended basketball games at the Save Mart Center this season, or 309 per game.
In a conference that includes some of the best fan bases among Group of Five Conferences including Nevada, San Diego State, Utah State and New Mexico, the Bulldogs lack much bite with a home court advantage.
“It’s a conference of great home court advantages, so if you have one here it would really help you finish higher in the conference,” said coach Justin Hutson, who has the Bulldogs at 21-8 and 12-5 with a No. 3 seed at the Mountain West Tournament locked up.
Taylor, who was a first-team all-conference selection last season and needs to score five points to move into the Top 10 on the Bulldogs’ all-time scoring list, has played in 48 games at the Save Mart Center. Nine have come in front of an announced attendance of 7,000 or more.
Nevada has played in front of 10,000 or more at home 13 times just this season.
At San Diego State, guard Jeremy Hemsley, whose Senior Night on Wednesday was spoiled when the Bulldogs pulled off a 76-74 victory, played in front of less than 10,000 only twice in his four-year career.
“No disrespect to our crowd, but we don’t get as much student love and community love like the other teams get,” Taylor said. “New Mexico is not top five in our conference and they’re selling out almost all their home games.”
Do the Bulldogs have that in them?
“I’m always optimistic,” Hutson said.
Little return on investment
Fresno State was invested when Hutson was hired in April 2018 to take over a program built by Rodney Terry, who left for a bigger budget and better facilities in a smaller conference at Texas-El Paso and Conference USA.
Fresno State committed to a basketball marketing campaign.
It pledged to drive student attendance.
That all fell flat.
Fresno State did improve the in-game atmosphere with the addition of DJ Kay Rich, stationed in the near-empty student section.
A Super Heroes Night promotion for a Saturday game in February against New Mexico drew 5,168 in actual attendance, the second-best Saturday crowd for a Mountain West game.
But the student-attendance at that game was only 366. Fresno State has had more students at five of their first eight conference games.
Other attempts to engage students or fan base had minimal impact.
Giveaways included food items, but a free mini corn dog or a free churro apparently is not much of a draw.
And the past four home games, all on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, each were played before less than 3,000 at the Save Mart Center.
Whether the resources are there to do more is a question.
The basketball program is paying for the appearances by DJ Kay Rich, not marketing.
“There are challenges and we are going to have to find the pieces to the puzzle,” said athletics director Terry Tumey, who was hired in August 2018 and inherited a tepid fan base for basketball and attendance that has declined sharply the past decade.
In 2008, the Bulldogs averaged 10,520 at the Save Mart Center.
What can be done?
Hutson has done his part, melding a team that had lost five of its top six scorers from a year ago to graduation or transfer into one of the top teams in the Mountain West.
The Bulldogs next week could challenge for the automatic NCAA Tournament berth that goes to the winner of the conference tournament – against the top two teams they split two games with Utah State and lost to Nevada by 10 at home and by six on the road.
Before the season, the new coach met with student groups, with sororities and fraternities. Hutson and his staff were in the community, trying to build support for the program.
Tumey said, “I feel like we’ve made some changes, some improvement that will really help us.
“But at the end of the day I think we really have to be smarter about our business. It’s not that personnel is the issue as much as it is, ‘What are our strategies? We need to start looking at, ‘What are the triggers to activate people to come out to our games?’
“Maybe it’s more community engagements. Maybe it’s more themed nights. All of those things are in play. But I’ll be the first to say we have some pretty innovative and creative people around here that want to try some new things and we’re going to let them take off and do it. You have to have resources to do that, and we’re still working at that.”
Fresno State attendance
Tickets scanned at Save Mart Center entry gates for Mountain West games this year:
|Colorado State, Saturday, Jan. 5||2,748||146|
|Nevada, Saturday, Jan. 12||7,592||494|
|San Diego State, Tuesday, Jan. 22||3,179||724|
|New Mexico, Saturday, Feb. 2||5,168||366|
|Utah State, Tuesday, Feb. 5||2,911||369|
|Boise State, Wednesday, Feb. 13||2,995||395|
|Air Force, Wednesday, Feb. 20||2,692||314|
|Wyoming, Wednesday, Feb. 27||2,947||542|
The Bulldogs play their final regular-season home game Saturday vs. San Jose State, 4 p.m. Saturday at the Save Mart Center.
Fresno State: 21-8 and 12-5; third in MW
Coach: Justin Hutson, 21-8 in first season
San Jose State: 4-25 and 1-16; 11th in MW
Coach: Jean Prioleau, 8-51 in second season
Series: Bulldogs lead 91-77
Tipoff: 4 p.m., Save Mart Center
TV/Radio: Mountain West Network/940AM ESPN, 1600 AM ESPN Deportes
G Deshon Taylor 17.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.7 apg
G Braxton Huggins 18.8, 4.5, 1.6
G Noah Blackwell 7.8, 2.4, 3.5
F Sam Bittner 7.0, 4.8, 2.2
F Nate Grimes 11.6, 9.4, 0.7
San Jose State
G Zach Chappell 5.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 2.0 apg
G Noah Baumann 10.7, 2.8, 1.8
G Seneca Knight 5.5, 2.3, 1.1
F Michael Steadman 13.3, 8.5, 0.9
C Ashtin Chastain 2.8, 3.0, 0.5