The University of Alabama set school records in basketball attendance in the 2017-18 season, drawing all-time highs in total and average attendance for games at Coleman Coliseum. The Crimson Tide drew a total of 227,640 fans to home games and averaged 13,391 per game.
Alabama sold out five contests, drawing capacity crowds of 15,383.
The Crimson Tide delivered on the court in its third season under head coach Avery Johnson, making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 and winning a game in the national championship event for the first time since 2006.
“One of your foundations to your program for success is being able to have strong support from your fan base, and it’s great testimony to the progress the program has made under Avery and our team to see the way people have bought in and come out and supported the program,” said Greg Byrne, UA’s athletics director.
The large turnout marked a revival for basketball at a school best known for its national championship football program. It showed the community’s support for the sport and willingness to come out to cheer on a winning product. Johnson pledged when he was hired in the spring of 2015 to deliver Alabama basketball to the NCAA Tournament within three seasons and made good on that promise.
“It’s all about building relationships and partnerships and building those relationships and partnerships in a way that is sustainable,” said Johnson, who came to UA with no previous collegiate coaching experience but a resume that included National Basketball Association Coach of the Year honors for leading the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 NBA finals. “The main thing is that our strong relationship with our fan base – some who’ve been around the program for a long time, others that are new — has shown signs of being sustainable, and because of that the interest in basketball here at Alabama is just off the charts right now.”
That interest began to build before the first jump shot of the season. Alabama signed a top-10 recruiting class that included Collin Sexton, a projected first-round selection if he decides to enter the NBA draft. Fans reacted to the high expectations brought on by the incoming recruits at the box office: UA topped the 6,000 mark in season ticket sales for just the third time in the last 10 years, and the first time in five years, according to data obtained by The Tuscaloosa News under an open records law request.
Alabama sold 6,015 season tickets, up nearly 5 percent from the previous season and more than 14 percent from the last year under Johnson’s predecessor, Anthony Grant.
“Everywhere we went, whether it was to the grocery store or a restaurant, in airports or just messages on social media, we understood the hype and energy that surrounded that recruiting class,” Johnson said.
Attendance has grown over the course of Johnson’s three seasons — each ranks in the top seven in school history in average and total attendance — but the coach knew there had to be a payoff. In essence he made a pact: if the fan base would show up and support the program, he would get Alabama back to the NCAA Tournament.
“This is a results-driven business. We understand that,” he said. “In our first three years we’ve struck out on some recruits and some other recruits we’ve had some where we’ve also hit it out of the park. We’ve won some games and upset some teams and we’ve obviously had a losing streak here or there. We think overall we delivered by us getting to the NCAA Tournament and advancing.”
Byrne wants to keep attendance trending upward. Part of that effort will include scheduling: Arizona will play at Coleman Coliseum next season as the return game of a home-and-home series. UA has played games in Birmingham in recent seasons against big-name opponents including Texas, Clemson and Oregon.
Alabama’s coach and athletics director want to see more of those games at home.
“Avery and I have had some discussion about some home-and-homes that we do want to do for Tuscaloosa,” Byrne said. “Obviously the Birmingham market is important to us and we will continue to go there when the schedule allows, but having the chance to have some of those marquee non-conference games on campus is important as well.”
Playing in front of a packed house, Johnson said, was a factor in Alabama’s success.
“It’s such a great feeling,” he said. “Even some of the nights where maybe the house wasn’t packed, our fans — whether season ticket holders or students — made us feel like the place was packed. We had some incredible crowds this year.
“The Tennessee game or the Auburn game or the Oklahoma game, the Texas A&M first game of conference play, it felt like we had 20,000 fans in Coleman Coliseum. Because of that, they really inspired our players to play at their maximum best.”
Johnson openly courted students, speaking at the Ferguson Center student union and to classes around campus. He encouraged his players to urge their classmates to come to games, and to mix with the students for high-fives and selfies after home victories. The results of those efforts showed.
“We had more students attend our games this year, I think, than in our first two years combined,” he said. “They’re really invested. They’re on their feet the entire time. Our student section was loud, rowdy and proud.”
The Crimson Tide program is far from devoid of basketball history. This year’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament was Alabama’s 20th, with seven of those including runs to the Sweet 16 and one to the Elite Eight, in 2004. But after six appearances in the national championship event in the 1980s and five each in the 1990s and 2000s, 2012 had been the only trip to college basketball’s big dance in the current decade.
For the first time in a long time, Tuscaloosa got to experience March Madness. Byrne, who was hired in January 2017, noted the difference from the previous season.
“Last March when I was in town we were playing in the NIT and obviously we appreciate that opportunity to be there, but at the same time there’s nothing quite like March Madness and being part of the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “So for us to be part of that, you could certainly feel that vibe throughout the community and throughout the state.”
Alabama coaches and players felt the buzz, especially around campus.
“We were off on spring break here (when the NCAA Tournament bid was announced), so when we found out we didn’t have any students on campus,” Johnson said. “But then that’s where the social media presence comes in and the text messages that we received from family and friends, we felt that excitement.
“Then when our students got back on campus on Monday, it was crazy. Some of the messages and T-shirts and stuff that they had on their cars all around campus, they were really fired up.”
Alabama’s job now is to sustain the success, and to build upon it.
“Obviously the next step is seeing if we can keep a large portion of this roster together and have the best continuity we’ve had in our three years,” Johnson said, “and hopefully those will continue to work in the offseason and develop and get better.”
Said Byrne, “You’ve got to keep climbing. … Tickets is an important part of that, marketing and promoting the program, and then also looking at our infrastructure and seeing what’s ahead for us there.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.