Mizzou Arena is bigger, newer and fancier than the Hearnes Center but still attracts smaller crowds.
Although the $75 million arena was heralded during its construction as a fresh start for an embattled men’s basketball program, turnout so far this season has been lower than any of the past five seasons played at the Hearnes Center. Average per-game attendance for the first 10 men’s basketball games of the 2003-04 season was 11,058. This year, it’s down to 8,827, the lowest average in six years.
“We’re a little disappointed that there haven’t been bigger turnouts this year,” said Chad Moller, a spokesman for the MU Athletic Department.
Moller said disappointing attendance was probably the result of a lackluster record and weak opponents. The Tigers have not yet faced a nationally ranked team and have a 6-5 record.
“Ultimately, the play on the court dictates the amount of people that turn out for a game,” Moller said.
Season-ticket sales increased this season by more than 20 percent, said Eric Morrison, director of development for annual giving. He estimated more than 9,200 of the arena’s seats belong to season ticket holders.
Between season tickets and student seating, the athletic department has sold all but 100 tickets to every game. Those 100 seats are available on a per-game basis, and Marketing Director Frank Cuervo said the department has had no trouble selling them.
“Pretty much every game, we’ve sold those out,” he said.
Mizzou Arena has a seating capacity of 15,061, while the Hearnes Center holds 13,300.
Gary Filbert, a former assistant coach and assistant athletic director, has had season tickets since he joined former coach Norm Stewart’s staff in 1982. He said experience has taught him to expect sluggish attendance early in the season.
“It’s really difficult to sell basketball until after Christmas,” Filbert said.
Controversy has surrounded the new arena since its inception. It came to a head last month when Bill and Nancy Laurie, who donated $25 million toward the arena, surrendered the naming rights. They had named the building Paige Sports Arena after their daughter, Elizabeth Paige Laurie, but relinquished naming rights after she was accused of cheating while she was a student at the University of Southern California.
The men’s basketball program also faced a high-profile NCAA investigation that ultimately resulted in sanctions.
Filbert said the naming fiasco and NCAA sanctions haven’t affected fans’ willingness to support the team.
“If I were the athletic director, I’d certainly be worried about it,” he said of the NCAA investigation. “But if you’ve sold out the arena, you’ve done what you’re supposed to do.”
Shana Porteen, who teaches a class on the sociology of sport at MU, said it’s unlikely either scandal has affected attendance.
“There’s always something going on, whether it’s an investigation or perhaps something has happened to bring down sanctioning,” she said. “It is a topic of conversation for people, but I don’t think that it taints the fan. The die-hard fans are still dedicated to the sport they love.”
MU pathology professor Eddie Adelstein, who sits on MU’s Faculty Council, has been a vocal opponent of the new arena. He said the building has stirred some public unrest.
“They (the public) see the arena as an elitist, fiscally segregated institution,” he said. “A lot of people are offended by that.”
Adelstein said, however, that he expects more fans to show up if the team’s play improves.