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The mid-major arena dilemma: When is too big a problem?

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High capacity facilities may help in recruiting, but for some programs they can be an issue on game day.

NCAA Men’s Basketball - CBE Classic - Duke vs Marquette - November 21, 2006
In an ideal world, Municipal Auditorium would be filled like this.
Photo by G. N. Lowrance/Getty Images

November 9 was supposed to be a spectacle for UT Rio Grande Valley.

One game into the new season, the Vaqueros would not just play a marquee game against Oklahoma, but would host the Sooners. It got better: that unicorn of a home game against a power conference team would take place in Bert Ogden Arena, the gleaming, new 8,500-seat facility UTRGV would call home.

That’s how it was supposed to happen, at least.

The school announced in early August that its home games for the 2018-19 season would continue to take place in UTRGV Fieldhouse, a 2,500-seat facility built in the lat 1960’s. The Bert Ogden Arena dream had died, seemingly due to some combination of hurdles with expenses and a lease agreement.

“We explored the option of moving our men’s basketball games into the new Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg, but determined that, at this time, staying in the UTRGV Fieldhouse is a better, more affordable option for our fans, and better for our athletics program as well,” UTRGV athletics director Chris King said in a statement. “Our facility has recently been upgraded with new lighting, a new sound system, and a new concessions area to help improve the fan experience. We look forward to welcoming the community back to campus for an exciting 2018-19 season.”

The Oklahoma game will still happen, a product of Lon Kruger’s connections both to the UTRGV (where he coached for four seasons when it was Texas-Pan American) and Vaqueros’ coach Lew Hill (who was a longtime assistant of his). But beyond missing Bert Ogden’s new car smell, could the program actually be in a better position staying in its current, more intimate home?

The Vaqueros’ average attendance was 845 last season, and the program put just 13,522 total fans in the seats over their 16 home games. While those numbers are in part constrained due to the arena’s capacity, they don’t instill much confidence that a marriage with Bert Ogden Arena would’ve worked out, at least not yet.

The program is undoubtedly improving under Hill. The Vaqueros climbed up the WAC standings in his second year, and had a slew of nice non-conference wins. That momentum plus the Sooners’ draw might have gotten a respectable showing into Bert Ogden Arena for that game. But after that? It would take years of success, likely punctuated by an NCAA Tournament appearance, to ensure the team wasn’t playing in a mostly empty arena.

That’s not to knock UTRGV for its ambition. Coaches seem to always point out that high capacity arenas are a recruiting tool, as Hill had done previously about the prospect of playing in Bert Ogden Arena.

“I’m excited about it, drive by it every day on the way to work,” he said in an interview last summer. “I’ll really become ecstatic once it’s built. It’ll be great for the fan base, recruiting and playing with pride.”

Yet empty, cavernous arenas don’t seem to make sense with your run-of-the-mill opponent. Aesthetically they can be interesting at best, and depressing at worst. The unfulfilled potential rattles around as fans in the upper bowl can clearly make out what the coaches are saying to the referees.

It’s an issue facing several WAC schools.

UMKC plays in arguably the second-most historic arena in the country behind the Palestra. Municipal Auditorium and its 10,000 seats have seen more Final Four games than any other facility, yet the Roos averaged just 1,210 fans per game a season ago, albeit in a rebuilding year. Seattle University has to decide whether playing a handful of games in a maybe-soon-to-be-renovated Key Arena continues to make sense, or whether playing exclusively on campus is a better fit.

And for both UMKC and Seattle, the large arenas pose a different problem. They’re both disconnected from their respective campuses, providing a natural hurdle for student attendance and the energy that can bring. In an anecdote that admittedly screams “small sample size,” the Roos won the first postseason game in their Div. I history in 2017 playing at their on-campus gym. That CBI game against Green Bay drew just 1,128 people, but given the venue it was a packed, loud crowd. Municipal Auditorium is a treasure with revenue potential, but the Roos wouldn’t have had that kind of atmosphere advantage had they played there instead.

Hill himself talked about the competitive advantage smaller facilities can provide, ironically as he was explaining why Oklahoma may have been more willing to visit Bert Ogden.

“Sometimes big schools don’t want to come play in a little small fieldhouse,” Hill said at the time. “They’ll come to play in an arena quicker than they will in a small fieldhouse, because a small fieldhouse is advantage you. They don’t want to take a chance. But in a bigger place, they want to get more fans involved.”

In an ideal world, Seattle, UMKC, UTRGV and any other mid-major playing in a disproportionately big arena would be able to fill the majority of those seats. Each program, like many in the WAC in particular, seem like that potential is there playing in large metropolitan areas.

But until that sort of fan base has actually arrived, some schools may better off staying home in front of intimate crowds that create friendlier environments, even if that makes the recruiting pitch a tad more difficult.