I don’t worry about Josh Pastner. The Tiger coach is young, healthy, ambitious, and certainly well-paid for his work in the city’s brightest spotlight. To borrow from Pastner's current expression of choice, basketball coaches endure seasons with "valleys." Better days are ahead for him.
But I do worry about malaise in the Tiger basketball fan base. Even worse, disinterest. It’s one thing for your team of choice to be bad, and quite another for it to be . . . uninteresting. Judging by the most empty seats I’ve seen at FedExForum in years, there are lots of Tiger fans not all that fired up by the 2014-15 club.
The team's current three-game winning streak (a "peak") has improved the buzz, particularly the upset of Cincinnati last week. But there remain some troubling attendance figures to digest:
• The Tigers have averaged 13,702 in attendance this season, down from 16,121 last season. [NOTE: For the purposes of this column, we’re going with the tickets-sold figure announced at each game.] That’s a drop of 15 percent from last season. Either Joe Jackson was a lot more popular than I thought, or the community perception of the Tigers has changed for the worse.
• This will likely be the first season since 2006-07 that the Tigers have averaged fewer than 16,000 fans at home. The team is safely ahead of the 2004-05 team, which drew an average of 10,552 over 23 home dates. (That team went 16-7 at home and played in the NIT after Darius Washington’s missed free throws in the Conference USA championship game.)
• When the Tigers hosted Cincinnati last year (January 4th), 17,191 tickets were sold for the renewal of a longtime rivalry. The Bearcats beat the Tigers by 16 points that Saturday afternoon. Last Thursday, only 14,916 tickets were sold for the same opponent. A 6 p.m. tip-off, no weather issues, and a 13-percent drop in ticket sales for what turned out to be a 13-point Memphis win.
• According to university officials, the Tigers have sold 13,856 season tickets this season. So, factoring in single-game purchases, when announced attendance is, say, 12,995 (as it was for the Western Illinois game on December 23rd), it means thousands of people are not going to a Tiger game . . . despite owning a ticket.
• Last season, the Tigers sold more than 18,000 tickets to five home games: UConn, Gonzaga, Temple, Louisville, and SMU. (The Huskies, Owls, and Mustangs will visit FedExForum again this season and should help improve the attendance numbers.) This season, the most popular game was that Cincinnati contest with ticket sales just shy of 15,000.
This is where I actually do worry about Pastner (a little). Forget the six losses (three of them at home). Empty seats get coaches fired. Let’s consider three factors contributing to all the elbow room at FEF:
1) Too much of a good thing (or mediocre thing?). The Tigers played nine home games over 33 days from December 2nd to January 3rd. Only the most passionate (and, perhaps, unattached) Tiger fans attended all nine of those games during holiday season. And I salute every one of you.
2) Directional delusion. Generally speaking, if a college basketball team has a geographic component to its name, it will not be highlighted on the schedules fans tape to their fridges. Among the Tiger foes to visit Memphis last month we saw “central,” “western,” and even “upstate.” The Tigers are undefeated against directional teams this season . . . and no fan really cares.
3) The Grizzlies are kicking ass and taking names. The novelty of this town’s NBA team winning games regularly is over (this is healthy). The community has grown accustomed to the Griz being playoff contenders (four straight trips to the postseason), and now consider the NBA Finals within reach. Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Tony Allen have been wearing Memphis uniforms longer than players are eligible to wear the Tiger uniform. They are familiar friends, winning lots of basketball games. Average attendance for Grizzly games this season: 17,213. Make no mistake: some of those fans are choosing one brand of basketball over another. (The Grizzlies had nine home games in December.)
The Tigers have only six more home games. Their chances at an NCAA tournament berth seem slim at best. How much energy will be felt at FedExForum if the Tigers are viewed as merely developing players for next season?
Winning games, of course, fills arena seats. And you can be sure Josh Pastner is spending any free time he might find brainstorming ways to win more than he has in his sixth season at the Tiger helm. A win at Tulsa this week would be big. A win at third-ranked Gonzaga on January 31st would change everything. But his program is in need of a ticket-selling infusion of vitality. If that doesn’t come soon, Pastner and those still attending Tiger games will have reason to worry.