Where are the crowds in Athens?

sports@macon.comFebruary 8, 2014 

LSU Georgia Basketball

AJ REYNOLDS/ATHENS BANNER-HERALDGeorgia drew less than 5,00 fans for its victory Thursday over LSU.

AJ REYNOLDS — AP

Mark Fox’s Georgia basketball team is actually doing better than most believed it would this season. The Bulldogs were right around the .500 mark entering Saturday’s game, despite a lack of elite talent and constant rumors about Fox’s future.

The team really has played hard, which is admirable. Fox set up the non-conference schedule to pad the record with easy wins, but there’s no denying the team has given its all.

But something stood out Thursday night in the victory over LSU. It was a good win, against a team that is also in the middle of the SEC and was once thought to be a potential tournament team.

The attendance was listed as 4,902. But if you watched the game on television, you know that must have been the amount of tickets sold. There might have been half that number actually at Stegeman Coliseum watching the Bulldogs and Tigers.

There was no way the upper section had 100 fans, and there were pockets of empty sections even in the lower bowl. Forget about calling that a crowd. It was more like a small gathering of people.

Fans have lost interest in this basketball program. Where were the students? Couldn’t they have gone to the game on a weeknight? The women’s basketball team and certainly the gymnastics team usually draw better crowds than what we saw Thursday.

When I was at Georgia as a student in the early 1990s, going to the basketball games was the thing to do. We never missed a game, and we would stand in line for tickets when necessary. That’s obviously not happening now.

The reason is simple. This program has not been good for a long time. In the 11 seasons since the Jim Harrick disaster, Georgia has an overall record of 163 wins and 163 losses. But the record in the SEC has been embarrassing: 62-109.

Neither Fox nor his predecessor, Dennis Felton, has been able to capture the magic that was once at Stegeman Coliseum under Hugh Durham and certainly in the short time Tubby Smith was the head coach.

But how could the attendance have been that bad Thursday? Georgia has 35,000 students, and there’s no way even three percent showed up for the game against LSU.

Look, we’re in a football state. There’s no denying that. But other basketball programs draw better.

Remember Georgia Tech’s game against North Carolina last week on the night of the big snowstorm? The attendance was listed at 5,124. Considering the interstate in front of Georgia Tech was packed with cars at the time and Atlanta was at a standstill, that crowd must have mostly been students. Even if there were 1,000 fewer people there than reported, that would have still been more than the number in Athens on Thursday.

How about Mercer? Were you at the Bears’ game a few weeks ago against Florida Gulf Coast? It was a great crowd and a great environment. Hawkins Arena was packed with five-deep standing room only around the concourse. Mercer has had other games with great crowds, including games against teams with bad records, when fans could have stayed away.

Give that credit to Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman, who has sold his basketball program to Middle Georgia. He has spoken to civic clubs. He has put out signs on heavily traveled roads inviting people to the games. He has reached out to the media and is the most accessible coach in this area. He wants you to go to the games to support his team.

But has Georgia done a good job of selling its basketball program? I’m not in Athens, but I wonder if the athletics program has done the same things Hoffman has done here. Hoffman cares if you come or not, but does Fox? Does athletics director Greg McGarity?

Those are fair questions, considering what we saw on television Thursday night.

And this is not intended to offend Mercer, but there is no way Mercer should have bigger Thursday night crowds than Georgia. If the Bears do, there is a problem in Athens.

The issue is not only in Athens. The SEC, which is simply not a good basketball conference, is having problems as a whole.

Jon Solomon, of www.al.com, reported Saturday the SEC actually has asked ESPN for help with its struggling attendance at men’s basketball games. The conference wants better start times and for ESPN to offer exclusive content that will be accessible for fans at the arenas.

Entering Saturday’s games, Georgia had the third-worst average attendance in the SEC at 6,343 fans per game, which is actually up 13 percent from last year at this time. It’s still not good, and it should be viewed as not being good enough.

There is no reason Georgia basketball can’t succeed. The talent base in this state is here. Georgia needs to get a coach who can revitalize this program so that we’ll never see an embarrassing crowd at Stegeman Coliseum ever again. Fox has had his chance, and it just hasn’t worked.

It’s time to try again. There’s no better promotion in the world than winning games, and Georgia hasn’t done it enough in a long time to make people want to go.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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