In the Liacouras Center’s first season bearing the name of Temple’s former president, two years after its opening, Temple basketball fans filled the bulk of the arena each night to support a team that finished the 1999-2000 season as the country’s No. 5-ranked team under former coach John Chaney.
When the team went 24-13 en route to an NCAA tournament appearance in 2000-01? An average of 7,138 showed up.
In a 19-15 campaign that featured an National Invitation Tournament invite in 2001-02? 7,123.
That following season, attendance dropped to an average of 5,202, kicking off a trend that has haunted the sixth-winningest men’s basketball program in Division I for the better part of 15 seasons.
While Chaney’s teams began to fall from the national ranks as a new decade arrived, their fans slowly disappeared, often leaving the university’s 10,200-seat spectacle barren on the inside by game time.
Temple boasts a program that has flirted with a Sweet 16 bid twice in the last five years, losing narrowly in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32 in 2011 and 2013.
The Owls swiped Atlantic 10 Conference titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and have knocked off Top 10 opponents in six of the last seven seasons.
In six of the last nine seasons, Temple qualified for the NCAA tournament.
Yet, through all of it, attendance numbers have fallen short.
That Temple has drawn an average of less than 6,000 fans 10 times in the last 13 seasons is a glaring reality amid an era in which its athletic department has repeatedly expressed a desire to join the nation’s elite.
In an October 2014 interview with three senior department administrators, Deputy Director of Athletics Pat Kraft told The Temple News that in order to draw attendance numbers that compete with traditionally-competitive programs in both football and basketball, it starts with the student body.
“The students are what drives [the] energy,” Kraft said. “That’s a big push for us, is to get our students to really buy in. … At any department, that’s what brings the energy in the building.”
And yet, large chunks of cherry-colored seats remain unfilled for a typical game at the Liacouras Center, and it’s not for lack of effort from the student section, which has consistently filled the bulk of its end of the building for much of the season.
It’s the other side of the building that reflects the problem.
Including NIT games last week against Bucknell and George Washington University, in which respective crowds of 3,862 and 3,404 turned up, the program’s average attendance of 5,873, which is 58 percent of the arena’s capacity, hasn’t been lower since Dunphy’s first season at the helm.
Without those NIT contests, Temple averaged 7,246 fans per game in 16 regular-season games, the program’s best since the 2011-12 season. Granted, a sellout when defending national champion Connecticut paid a visit ticked that number upward. Contests against Tulane and Houston during the final six weeks of the season, games in which attendance eclipsed the 7,000 mark against two bottom-half teams in The American, were examples of a rejuvenated energy that surrounded the program amid its push for an NCAA tournament bid.
And while the NIT offers itself as a consolation prize to NCAA bubble teams such as this season’s Temple squad, a large chunk of the fans that rocked the Liacouras Center no more than a few weeks ago no longer showed up once the Owls fell on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
“I thought the atmosphere was great [against Bucknell Wednesday],” Dunphy said after Temple’s six-point defeat of the Bison in a first-round NIT game. “I thought we had a really good crowd. It’s not going to knock them dead numbers-wise, but I thought everybody was into it.”
The student ensemble contributed to a respectable volume around the building that day, while the alumni numbers dropped significantly.
Through a season in which the Owls have won 25 games in a turnaround campaign, they’ve done so in front of an inconsistent and, at times, puzzling fanbase.
Andrew Parent can be reached at email@example.com, 215.204. 9537 or on Twitter @Andrew_Parent23.