The University of Kentucky has what is undeniably one of the top basketball programs in the nation. They consistently lead the country in attendance. Over the last four years they have made two Final Four appearances and in 2012 they won the national championship. Times are good. Or, so you would think.
But despite all that, UK's attendance is down 8.7 percent since 2009. Through the first seven games of the 2009 season the Wildcats averaged 23,868. It has declined every year since. And this year attendance through the first seven games was just 21, 799. That's 2069 fewer fans per game than in 2009. Attendance this year actually lags behind attendance in 2008, the last year of Billy Gillispie's disastrous teenure as head coach.
So what's up?
"I used to have season tickets," one long time UK fan told me. "But I gave them up. And the Louisville game was the first game I had watched all year this year. When you have an completely new team every year it's just hard to get attached to the players. And if you have no emotional attachment to the players you just tend to move on to something else."
In the short term it's not a big problem. But in the long term it could be a major problem for Kentucky and college basketball as a whole. So, what can be done?
Well, the NBA could do the NCAA a favor and change their rules to force players to stay in college for two years. Former Indiana head coach Bob Knight told USA Today, "I know it can be (arranged) with David Stern. I've known it for a year and a half." But NBA Players Association head honcho Billy Hunter has said he is in favor eiliminating the current one year requirement instead. That could work too. Of course the NCAA would be left without mega-talents like Julius Randle.
And both of those solutions would require action by the NBA. In the absence of such action, is there anything the NCAA can do?
They could allow schools to pay the players but that probably wouldn't make a difference. There's no way they could pay them enough to discourage the top players from bolting for the NBA after one year. They could make freshmen ineligible. That might encourage the one-and-done types to play in the D-League instead of college. But I really don't see that happening.
The best solution open to the NCAA might be to penalize schools who have more than one player leave for the NBA after their freshman season in a single year. That would keep the superstars in college for a year. But it would spread them out, creating more continuity as well as parity.
Who knows? It might work. It might not. I do know this, unless something is done, college basketball may be in for a steep decline in popularity over the next 10 years.