Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith not concerned about men's basketball crowds
A maroon-colored seat at Value City Arena needs replaced roughly every two years. The dark color allows for some hiding of stains, but the wear and tear of hosting patrons for everything from Ohio State men’s basketball games to a Paramore concert takes a toll and eventually requires some attention.
There were plenty of them available for inspection Wednesday night as the Buckeyes hosted Eastern Illinois for the third game of the season. And for a third straight time, a record-low crowd for a regular-season men’s basketball game looked on to see Ohio State post a 65-43 win and improve to 3-0.
The announced attendance for the game: 8,350. It marked only the ninth time fewer than 10,000 fans have watched a regular-season game at Value City Arena. It was also the second game with fewer than 9,000 fans, eclipsing the record low of 8,409 set in a win against Charleston Southern.
That was six days prior. But pointing to a new roster featuring five freshmen, three transfers and little returning name recognition among the fanbase coupled with the realities of scheduling, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he’s not bothered by the lackluster attendance to open the 2022-23 season.
“It doesn’t concern me at this point,” Smith told The Dispatch, standing near the court roughly an hour before the opening tip. “We’ve got a whole new team. This team needs to gel and people need to get to know them, and they will. I think basketball is a sport where fans connect with the players. We’ve got a whole new team, so they need to learn about them. Once they come and see them, I think they’ll come back.
“I’m not concerned about it at this point in time. I’m probably more of a realist.”
Ohio State finished seventh in Big Ten attendance last season, averaging 14,196 fans per conference game. In non-conference play, the Buckeyes averaged 10,672 fans in their six games, a number buoyed by a home date with perennial power Duke as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. That sellout crowd of 18,809 was largely comprised of fans who had to purchase season tickets in order to be able to secure a ticket to see the Blue Devils.
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This year’s slate of non-league games possesses less brand appeal. With three games as part of the Maui Invitational, a road rematch with Duke and an annual appearance in the CBS Sports Classic that will pit the Buckeyes against North Carolina in Madison Square Garden, the Buckeyes scheduled six home games against out-of-state, sub-300 teams according to KenPom.com.
The average national ranking as of Thursday for Robert Morris, Charleston Southern, Eastern Illinois, St. Francis (Pa.), Maine and Alabama A&M: 328.7. St. Francis (Pa.) is the highest rated of the lot at No. 305. All six games are considered Quad 4 games by the NCAA’s NET rankings that are used to help sort through team’s March Madness resumes.
Ohio State quickly sold out its student section for a second straight year. Students could also get a free ticket for the opener against Robert Morris, but otherwise this slate of games was not included in the ticket package. Coach Chris Holtmann noted that after the Charleston Southern game.
“I loved our students in game one,” he said. “I thought our students were phenomenal. Fastest we’ve sold student tickets in eight or 10 years. I tend to look at it that way. Our focus is really controlling and putting a team on the floor and a product on the floor that people will enjoy watching. I think as they familiarize themselves with our team they certainly will.”
The lack of marquee home opponents of an anomaly during Holtmann’s tenure, which has typically featured at least one high-profile home non-conference game. Duke last season and Villanova during the 2019-20 season were both scheduled for him (the Wildcats came to Value City Arena as part of the Gavitt Games), but the Buckeyes did play a home-and-home series with Cincinnati in 2018 and 2019.
During an appearance on Smith’s podcast earlier this month, Holtmann said he is having talks with Gonzaga, Arizona, Texas and Tennessee about scheduling home-and-home series in the future. One of those teams could be on the calendar within the next two years.
“Chris is really focused on trying to do some home-and-homes,” Smith said. “That will happen over time. I just want to see this team gel and win and hopefully when you add this class next year that we’ve signed you have a team that people will be familiar with. That means a lot.”
Familiarity with players is a theme Smith referenced multiple times. The Ohio State women’s basketball team had a crowd of 6,402 for a season opener against No. 5 Tennessee, and Smith said that’s in part credit to fans having watched a player like first-team all-Big Ten guard Jacy Sheldon play for the last three seasons. Football, which is averaging 104,359 fans at Ohio Stadium this season, is “crushing it,” he said, while also noting that women’s volleyball is selling out games at the Covelli Center with a team of returning, established players.
The belief is that this Ohio State men’s basketball team is headed in that direction.
“When we were playing 21 home games, we had players that people related to, the David Lighty years, the Jon Diebler years,” Smith said. “There was a connection that was different. The Aaron Craft years. You look at a Bruce Thornton-type player, you know, people are going to connect with him. They will. They will connect with him.”