ATLANTA — Bob Donohoe had not even considered trying to get tickets to this year’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Those are usually handed down like family heirlooms.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, he heard the ACC was putting seats up for sale just like any other event. So he doled out more than $1,000 for three ticket books, drove to Atlanta from Winston-Salem, N.C., and — voila — there he was watching from a seat in the third deck of the Georgia Dome alongside his wife and daughter.
They had an entire section to themselves.
“We’ve even got our own toilets,” Donohoe quipped.
This may be March Madness, but the struggling economy has clearly taken a toll on attendance at most league tournaments. The ACC sold tickets to the general public for the first time since 1966. There were thousands of empty seats at the Southeastern Conference tourney in Tampa, Fla. The Big Ten, Pac-10, Big 12 and Conference USA also reported drop-offs from previous years.
Only the Big East, which again sold out Madison Square Garden after inviting all 16 teams for the first time, managed to avoid a slide.
“When you look at everything going on in the economy, people can’t afford certain things,” Georgia Tech guard Lewis Clinch said after his team was eliminated in the quarterfinals. “We’re thankful for what we did have here.”
The ACC was caught in a two-sided predicament. Not only has the financial meltdown forced nearly everyone to tighten their belts, this year’s tournament was held at a domed football stadium capable of holding some 36,000 fans even when half the building is curtained off — about 13,000 more than the event’s regular home in Greensboro, N.C.
The league sold 26,352 tickets, each costing $363 for an 11-game book, more than any other postseason tournament but still far short of the record attendance set in 2001 when the event was last held at the Georgia Dome.
That year, the ACC averaged 36,505 per session, with a high of 40,083.
“All the fans were great,” Clinch said. “It was a great atmosphere. That hasn’t tapered off just because we don’t have 36,000 people here.”
In Tampa, the SEC averaged 11,612 for the opening round and 13,717 for the quarterfinals at the 20,500-seat St. Pete Times Forum. It didn’t get any easier to pump up attendance when Kentucky and Florida, the two best draws, were both eliminated before the weekend.
Only 10,387 showed up for Saturday’s semifinals.
“I don’t think you’re turning on the TV and seeing sold-out conference tournaments or conference tournaments at complete capacity anywhere,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “There’s not a lot of expendable dollars out there.”
Attendance at the Big Ten tournament in basketball-mad Indianapolis was down nearly 10,000 through the first four sessions compared to 2008. At the end of Saturday’s semis, they announced that tickets still remained for Sunday’s championship game at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Penn State fans Dan Ward and Christina Davies drove 8 1/2 hours from State College, Pa., but they had an advantage over fans who doled out $250 for an all-session ticket.
“I actually work for the athletic department, so the tickets were free,” said Ward, a recent Penn State graduate. “It’s probably the only reason I came. If I couldn’t get free tickets, I probably wouldn’t have come.”
The Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City averaged 15,672 through the first four sessions, on pace to be the fourth-lowest average in the event’s 13-year history. That’s also a significant slide from the average of 18,879 two years ago, the only other time it was held at the Ford Center.
Out West, the Pac-10 tournament has a pair of hometown teams, USC and UCLA, but there was still a dip in attendance at the 18,997-seat Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Conference spokesman Dave Hirsch said 9,000 all-session tickets were distributed for the 10 schools to sell. The remaining single-sessions tickets were sold to the general public and corporate groups.
“Compared to the last couple of years, it’s down,” Hirsh said, blaming the weakened economy. “I don’t think the basketball is any different. Fans are passionate, but they’re looking to spend their money a little more wisely.”
While only 10,964 showed up Wednesday night for a pair of games involving the league’s four worst teams, a near-sellout of 18,497 turned out Friday night for two semifinal games, including USC’s 65-55 victory over UCLA.
For the fifth straight year, Conference USA held its tournament at the homecourt of the league’s most dominant team, Memphis.
Attendance was off through the first three sessions, none of which included the Tigers, but it actually improved over last year when Memphis finally took the court at the 18,119-seat FedExForum. A crowd of 11,792 turned out for a Friday afternoon semifinal, and many of those fans hung around to watch Tulsa’s 70-67 victory over UAB.
Still, that’s a lot of empty seats. Overall, the numbers were down about 3,700 from 2008.
The Big East was the only major tournament that appeared immune to the economic meltdown, perhaps helped by its decision to expand the tournament to all 16 schools — and bring in a whole new group of potential ticket-buying fans to Madison Square Garden.
The tournament was officially a sellout, as always. It helped to have three of the nation’s top five-ranked teams and six in the Top 25.
“The demand for tickets has been better than ever,” retiring commissioner Mike Tranghese said. “A lot of it had to do with the strength of the league and the quality of the teams.”