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Wisch: A New Arena Won't Fix DePaul Basketball Alone

By Dave Wischnowsky-

(CBS) With last-place finishes in the Big East piling up and attendance numbers at Allstate Arena plummeting, DePaul basketball is clearly in need of a fix.

But a new arena in Chicago isn't going to fix it alone.

And the worry here is that the Blue Demons' forthcoming $170-million home is going to end up bedeviling taxpayers for years to come.

On Monday, Danny Ecker of Crain's Chicago Business reported that two and a half years ahead of the scheduled opening of a 10,000-seat DePaul basketball arena next to McCormick Place, the school's already paltry attendance figures are heading in the wrong direction.

According to Allstate Arena ticket records obtained by Crain's, DePaul's men's basketball attendance dropped 27 percent year over year this season to just more than 1,900 fans per game. The Blue Demons went 11-20 overall and 3-15 in the Big East, securing their sixth straight year of owning at least a share of last place in the conference.

Based on the Ticketmaster scan system, which tracks exactly how many people enter a building, only 30,556 fans actually passed through the turnstiles in Rosemont during the Blue Demons' 16 regular-season games, according to Crain's. That total is about 30 percent of the 101,972 fans that DePaul reported as its full-season attendance number, Ecker reported.

With this year's dip, the average actual attendance at DePaul games over the past four seasons – during which DePaul has gone only 41-75 overall and a woeful 9-63 in the Big East – is just under 2,700 fans per game.

That small number is disturbing considering that last spring the Metropolitan Pier and Expansion Authority (McPier) estimated that DePaul would draw an average attendance of 9,500 fans – or 152,000 total over 16 games – once it moved into the new 10,000-seat event center, which will use at least $70 million in tax money to build, even though it's a venue intended to primarily benefit a private school.

That means DePaul would need to more than triple its four-year average of 2,700 fans  per game – and increase its 2013-14 average of 1,900 fans a whopping five-fold – to meet those lofty projections of 95 percent capacity for the season. Unless Mark Aguirre, Ray Meyer and 1980 are coming back to the DePaul sidelines, that's just not happening. Not any time soon, at least – and perhaps not ever.

As a point of comparison, the University of Illinois, which boasts a much larger fan base and student enrollment than DePaul, has enjoyed 100 percent capacity only 229 times in 51 years of basketball at the 16,618-seat State Farm Center.

That's an average of just 4.5 sellouts per season over five decades.

Nevertheless, near capacity for every game is what DePaul – and, by default, taxpayers who likely are on the hook for any revenue shortfalls – will be counting on. DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto told Crain's on Monday, "I don't think that 10,000 is an insurmountable number for us. I think it's very achievable."

If it is, a new arena won't achieve those numbers simply because it's been built. And DePaul's mere move back to the city after three decades away also won't account for such an enormous attendance spike, especially since the new event center will still be a lengthy L train ride away from its campus and student body and will also abandon whatever suburban fans the Demons have acquired over the years in Rosemont.

If DePaul is going to benefit from the public's money with the new arena, then it needs to step up its game, too. Ponsetto, however, instead opted to maintain the status quo when she announced last week that  coach Oliver Purnell would return for a fifth season despite losing at least 20 games in each of his first four. In defense of her decision, Ponsetto pointed to Chicagoans Billy Garrett Jr. and Tommy Hamilton – both of whom made the conference's all-rookie team – and Illinois transfer Myke Henry as home-grown reasons to be optimistic about the future.

But DePaul is going to need more local names – and likely much bigger ones – if it really wants to recapture the imagination of Chicago hoops fans and most importantly get their butts in the event center's seats.

On Monday, Ponsetto also told Crain's that she's had discussions with Chicago's other college basketball programs about building more buzz around the game in the city, saying, "We all feel like everybody's trying to come up with the best and most creative ideas on what it is we can do to re-energize college basketball in Chicago, and I don't think anybody can quite figure out why none of us has had a lot of success the last couple of years."

For DePaul, it's been more than the last couple of years, and it's Ponsetto's job to figure out why its basketball program hasn't had success. With the new arena set to break ground in early 2015, she had better figure it out.

Because everyone in Chicago is likely on the hook for the price tab – whether you're a Blue Demons fan or not.

Follow Dave on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.


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