LEXINGTON, Ky. — According to a story in The Birmingham News, SEC officials are alarmed by substantial declines in the league’s average attendance at men’s basketball games — from 11,513 in 2011-12 to 9,745 (through games of Feb. 8) this season.
So the SEC has asked for help from the world’s most powerful entity, ESPN (sarcasm, sort of). Be it better starting times for telecasts or ESPN offering unique content available only to fans in SEC arenas, the league wants aid from The Worldwide Leader in putting fannies back in seats.
I’m going to suggest that one of the best things the SEC could do to boost interest in men’s hoops would be to admit a recent screw-up by the league and return to division play.
From the point Arkansas and South Carolina joined the SEC for the 1991-92 season through the 2010-11 campaign, Southeastern Conference men’s basketball was aligned in the same manner as SEC football, with East and West Divisions.
In basketball, you played each of the teams in your division twice and each foe from the other division once. Every year from 1999 through 2006, there were six SEC teams in the NCAA tourney.
Then, in 2010-11, five teams from the SEC East made the Big Dance and none from the West did so. Suddenly, SEC coaches convinced themselves the division format was somehow “sabotaging” the league’s ability to get teams into the Dance. The West was thought to be particularly “stigmatized.”
SEC men’s hoops coaches voted 13-1 to do away with divisions. We’re in our third season in which all SEC teams, now 14 with Missouri and Texas A&M, are in one big grouping.
The result has made SEC hoops less appealing on several fronts.
1.) Not as many interesting games
Under the current scheduling format, each team has one permanent foe it plays twice each season. For Kentucky, that is Florida.
You also play four other teams twice in a season on a rotating basis. This year, UK’s rotators are all former SEC West schools, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi and Mississippi State.
All the other teams, you play once.
This new format makes it harder to maintain rivalries. UK’s formerly annual trips to Knoxville to face Tennessee and Nashville to play Vanderbilt tended to be two of the most interesting games of each UK season. Under the current SEC scheduling format, UK did not play in Knoxville this season and will play Vandy only once instead of twice.
Poor Georgia this year has no home game with either Florida, Tennessee or Kentucky.
2.) Harder to attend road games
Kentucky may have the only fan base that cares enough about hoops for this to matter, but the fact that teams are no longer guaranteed to play annual road games against the league foes closest to them has to be hurting SEC attendance.
Historically, UK backers are a major presence at road games in Knoxville, Nashville and Athens, Ga. It’s going to be harder, because of distance, for even Kentucky fans to make the same impact in Baton Rouge and Fayetteville, Ark.
Poor Georgia, without home games with its three biggest draws, is down in 2013-14 attendance 672 fans a game (from 6,898 to 6,226) for league contests from last season.
3.) Unfair to the players
As major-college conferences super-size, divisions allow you to cut down on travel and, presumably, help the (insert throat-clearing sound effect here) student-athletes miss a little less class time.
4.) Not boosting NCAA tourney presence
In the last five years of division play (2007 through 2011), the SEC averaged 4.6 NCAA Tournament teams a season. During the two years since the divisions were abolished (admittedly, a small sample size), the conference has placed an average of 3.5 teams a year in the tourney.
There’s no sign that the current scheduling format is helping get SEC basketball teams into the NCAA tourney. Yet there’s every reason to think it is hurting attendance and, I would argue, creating fewer “interesting” league games.
So go back to divisions, East and West. Even in a 14-team league, you could play the other six teams in your division twice and the seven teams in the opposite division once for 19 league games. That’s only an increase of one league game over the current 18-game SEC slate.
For SEC men’s basketball, an East and a West would be best.