COLUMBIA — The Missouri men's basketball team has found the cure for its home attendance woes, but treatment is a slow process.
MU coach Mike Anderson’s team is 16-3 and could hardly be better on its home court.
Texas Tech (11-7, 1-2
at Missouri (16-3, 3-1)
WHEN: 12:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Mizzou Arena (15,061)
TV: KMIZ/Channel 17
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR 102.3 FM
The Tigers have won all 12 of their games at Mizzou Arena by an average of 30.9 points and only twice have opponents been within 20. The closest game was a 92-83 win against Oral Roberts back in November.
Yet despite the team’s success, plenty of empty seats have remained in the Tigers’ state-of-the-art arena, which has a capacity of 15,061. The Tigers rank 10th in the Big 12 Conference in home attendance with 7,339 fans per game, including just 6,650 per game in 10 nonconference games.
Lately, though, it appears Missouri fans may be starting to believe. There were 12,403 who watched the Tigers crush Iowa State 77-46 last weekend, the biggest crowd since the game against Texas A&M Feb. 9 of last year.
“I thought (the fans) made a big difference,” Anderson said in his opening statements after the game. “If I could get me 16, 17,000 every night, you think they’re playing now, they really would take it to another level.”
Missouri spokesperson Dave Reiter said he has seen a huge increase in student involvement at games and other events. More than once, coaches and players have mentioned the student support in postgame press conferences.
For the first time, members of Missouri’s official student fan group, Zou Crew, got to join the players after a practice during the preseason and shoot around with the team. The group’s director, Brad Fischer, said Anderson has been “really open” to working with the group. The Zou Crew is taking 54 students to Iowa State on Feb. 7, and Anderson agreed to let the Zou Crew member who attends the most games travel with the team to the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.
Few fans know the Tigers and their fan base better than the Antlers, Missouri’s unofficial but well-known student fan group. The Antlers say they still aren’t completely sold on this year’s team until it notches another quality win, but they’re optimistic the Tigers will continue to bring in bigger crowds.
“It’s the winning that they have to get in order to get the fans,” said Brent Stepanek, the leader, or “poobah” of this year’s Antlers. “That’s just the way Missouri fans are.”
Brent Kite, a Columbia native and the Grand Poobah of the Antlers who graduated in 2003, said the fans showed up with their usual frequency as Missouri cruised through its weak nonconference schedule. But he said the win at Georgia and two blowouts against Iowa State and Colorado might have changed some opinions.
“If they win tonight,” Stepanek said Wednesday before Missouri beat Oklahoma State 97-95, “we’ll probably have close to a sellout Saturday.”
Reiter said Thursday the Tigers are expecting more than 13,000 against Texas Tech in the first home game since classes started for the second semester.
Missouri is averaging 1,041 more fans per game in 2008-2009 than it did through the same point in the schedule last season. That’s especially impressive considering the Tigers had their two biggest crowds in their first two conference home games of 2008, against No.7 Texas and No. 4 Kansas.
“I think people realize that our team’s turning a corner,” said Fischer, a junior at Missouri. “We’ve gotten off to fast starts before, but I think this team’s got more staying power.”
Another thing the Antlers say is better about this year’s team is its likeability. Antler Scott Hollabaugh said some of the players from last year’s team carried themselves as if they were above the fans. Tony Monticelli, a former Poobah for the Antlers, said the newcomers have been more personable than former players when interacting with the fans in venues like Tiger Talk, the weekly radio show with Mike Anderson taped at Buffalo Wild Wings.
Quality opponents on the horizon could be another good cure for the Tigers’ ailment. Reiter said nearly all tickets are sold for the Kansas game Feb. 9, and only upper level seats remain for the game against Baylor Jan. 31. It’s too far away to make any projections, but the final home game of the year against No. 6 Oklahoma on March 5 also figures to be a popular ticket.