By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s an unconventional move, lowering ticket prices midseason, but the economy is ailing, and this is an unusual time for UVa men’s basketball.
Virginia has a highly regarded new coach, Tony Bennett, whose team has defeated two ranked opponents since Christmas. After beating No. 20 Georgia Tech on Wednesday night, the Cavaliers (2-0, 10-4) lead the ACC, and their winning streak has reached six games.
Yet fans have not come close to filling 14,593-seat John Paul Jones Arena this season.
The Wahoos are averaging 8,620 at home games, with a high of 10,787 for the opener against Longwood. Official attendance at the Georgia Tech game, which wasn’t televised, was 8,924, though the fans who showed up were in full voice and clearly buoyed the Cavaliers.
“I’m starting to get a feel of what the arena’s like when the crowd gets into it,” Bennett said after the game. “It can be a tremendous advantage.”
UVa officials agree. Like Bennett, they know a homecourt advantage is essential for success at the highest level of Division I hoops. And that’s the main reason, Jon Oliver said Friday, that UVa has decided to offer $10 tickets for selected seats at six of the team’s final eight home games.
More information can be found in the official release, but the $10 tickets are available for Virginia’s games against UNC Wilmington (Jan. 18), Virginia Tech (Jan. 28), N.C. State (Feb. 3), Wake Forest (Feb. 6), Florida State (Feb. 17) and Maryland (March 6).
“This isn’t just about selling tickets,” said Oliver, executive associate athletics director at UVa. “It’s not going to generate a lot of money. We want to make sure we build this program the right way and it lasts, and the fans are a huge part of that.”
That’s true in football, too. UVa hired Mike London as head coach last month, and he took over a team that has finished with a losing record in three of the past four seasons, a decline that has hurt attendance at Scott Stadium.
For the moment, though, Virginia officials are focused on encouraging fans to feel vested in the program Bennett is building.
“I believe we all have a part to play in making this successful,” Oliver said. “We can’t do it without the fans.”
With the start of the spring semester then a week away, student turnout Wednesday night was lower than usual for an ACC game. That wasn’t unexpected. More troubling to UVa officials were the empty seats outside the student sections.
During the final two seasons of Dave Leitao’s tenure as coach, UVa struggled to compete in the ACC. The mounting losses, combined with the bad economy and what many considered to be overpriced tickets, led thousands of fans to stay away from games at John Paul Jones Arena.
This is the Cavaliers’ fourth season at JPJ, and crowds haven’t always been sparse there. In 2006-07, Leitao’s second season, UVa averaged 13,521 at home games.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, Virginia went 16-1 at JPJ that season, a record that made it easier for Leitao’s team to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
“The fans were a big part of that,” Oliver said.
In 2007-08, Virginia’s record dropped to 17-16, and average attendance at JPJ dipped to 11,705.
Last season was worse on both fronts. The ‘Hoos finished 10-18, and average attendance at home games decreased to 10,219.
The Cavaliers are not even to the midpoint of their first season under Bennett, and they’ve already matched their 2008-09 victory total. Bennett went 69-33 in three seasons at Washington State, with two trips to the NCAAs, and University officials are convinced he’s the right man to lead the ‘Hoos.
Still, Bennett can’t do it alone.
“I personally believe engaged, loud fans creating a homecourt advantage is one of the keys to building a program,” Oliver said.
“We need them. We can’t do this without them.”
UVa hosts another ranked foe, No. 23 Miami, in an ACC game Saturday night. For this game, a family ticket package is available for $84. That include four tickets and four concession vouchers, each good for a 22-ounce soda and a hot dog.
Additional tickets are $21 each. These seats are in the reserved-seats areas of JPJ.
To purchase tickets on-line, visit VirginiaSports.com. For ticket information, call (800) 542-8821 or (434) 924-8821 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. Tickets may also be purchased in Bryant Hall at Scott Stadium on weekdays and at the JPJ box office on game days.