During the summer of 2010 when conference realignment was all the rage, Kansas University very nearly became a powerhouse school without a power conference. For a brief time rumors spread that the then Big 12 would face extinction with the departure of several programs to leagues like the Pac-10 and SEC. Because such decisions were to be driven by football, a historic basketball school like KU would be left behind, or so the story was told.
Fortunately for Jayhawk fans, that particular doomsday scenario never occurred, and blossoming basketball rivalries like Texas-KU were preserved for at least the time being. However, in a college athletics environment where football is king, realignment continues to loom as a threat for those who value what occurs on the court more than the happenings on the gridiron.
But what if everyday fans had a say in these realignment scenarios? And what if we measured their collective say by their willingness to attend football and basketball games? Which side would win?
Naturally football attendance figures will far outweigh those for basketball because of the sheer differences in venue capacity. If we control for size by looking at the percent of venue capacity filled for a given program in a given time period, we can better compare across the sports and dive into this inquiry.
To complete this task I obtained the last six years' worth of season attendance figures for every school with a football and basketball program competing in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC. For each season a capacity percentage was calculated for each school's football and basketball teams. I then averaged all of the seasons together to arrive at a six-year "capacity used" average for both sports. A scatterplot of these averages featuring every program was then developed and is depicted in the chart below.
These results rely heavily on two assumptions: 1) Programs design arenas and stadia according to realistic assessments of popular demand. (Though this is not always the case, particularly when college football teams play in NFL venues, but it is nonetheless something assumed true for most programs.) 2) Attendance figures reported to the NCAA are taken in good faith. (Again, one can point to many cases where figures are bloated, but with no way to control for this phenomenon the assumption will stand.)
With those assumptions in mind, the Football School-Basketball School Matrix:
The matrix presents teams in four different quadrants. To answer the initial question on where fans would stand in a conference realignment debate, one need only focus on the top-left quadrant labeled "Football Dominance." While a plurality of programs actually experience strong support in both football and basketball ("Two Sport Dominance"), those with dominating football programs far outnumber those with dominant basketball programs. The worst offender is Penn State, where fans have packed football games at a 100 percent clip over the last six years compared to just over 50 percent for basketball games. No wonder Ed DeChellis left for the Naval Academy!
Other schools appearing in the "Football Dominance" quadrant do not surprise. These are the types of programs that often experience difficulty when trying to lure away coaches from basketball-crazy mid-majors. In other words winning is tough in these posts and, either as a cause or a result, fan bases are difficult to develop.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, traditional basketball programs like Duke, Louisville, and Indiana all fit comfortably in the "Basketball Dominance" quadrant. Pittsburgh, which has been consistently great under Jamie Dixon, also makes an appearance here. Honestly, this group is so selective -- and, at times, odd (hello, Oklahoma State) -- that it makes you wonder if we ought to rethink whether some of our storied basketball programs are truly "basketball schools."
To bring this full circle look no further than Kansas. While the Jayhawk faithful continue to fill Phog Allen Fieldhouse to its maximum year after year, they have also come out to support the football team at an impressive rate in recent years. In fact KU is one of just a handful of schools whose fans regularly fill up both the football stadium and the basketball arena. In this respect Kansas is similar to other supposed basketball schools like Kentucky, Arizona, and Michigan State. By this measure football is just as highly valued at these places as basketball.
The discussion would not be complete without mentioning the "No Sport Dominance" quadrant, which features programs that have a tough time filling stadiums and arenas regardless of the sport. Syracuse is the major outlier in this group, as both of its teams suffer according to this measure because they play in an oversized dome. Programs like Northwestern and Miami, however, appear to be right at home.
Though university officials consider many factors when deciding upon a conference home, it is no secret that the potential for viability in football is one of the heaviest considered inputs. And if this exercise shows anything, it's that fans of power-conference schools tend to support the notion that football reigns supreme over basketball in college athletics. Thus it won't be surprising when conference realignment continues to place football at the head of the table, much to the chagrin of us college basketball fanatics.
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