Pace Mannion and Greg Grant would have packed the Salt Palace. Yoeli Childs and Donnie Tillman won’t come close to filling Vivint Smart Home Arena.
More than 30 years after the concept of bringing together four in-state college basketball teams initially was discussed, the Zions Bank Beehive Classic is happening Saturday night. The event will celebrate the sport in Utah, and its creation is long overdue.
That’s the problem. This is not the 1980s.
The Beehive Classic, beginning a three-year run by matching Utah vs. Utah State and BYU vs. Weber State in a one-night doubleheader, is an interesting study of sports marketing in this era. Anything that’s not included in schools’ season-ticket packages is asking more of fans than they may want to deliver. Next year will offer a different test for consumers when BYU and Utah are paired together. The 2018 attendance should be much higher, logically.
Saturday, at Vivint Smart Home Arena
5:30 p.m. • Utah vs. Utah State. TV • Pac-12 Network
8 p.m. • BYU vs. Weber State. TV • BYUtv
The Utah sports landscape has changed, with the Jazz and football overtaking college basketball. Even so, this week’s update from the organizers was not what I was expecting 17 months ago, when the event was announced: Tickets available, in both the lower and upper bowls of Vivint. The Ticketmaster chart of unsold seats is even more jarring, although sales picked up somewhat Friday and organizers are hoping for a walk-up crowd Saturday.
This thing will be fun, with Utah meeting USU for the first time in Ute coach Larry Krystkowkiak’s tenure and leading scorer David Collette facing his old team. To complete the theme, BYU guard McKay Cannon will oppose Weber State, having received an NCAA waiver that made him eligible as a transfer, only nine months after playing for the Wildcats in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game.
Those guys will make good stories. But how many people will be watching them in person?
Arena management and the schools’ athletic directors chose seemingly a perfect date for the event. The second Saturday of December, when Army-Navy is the only major college football game, offers a fairly clear sports calendar.
The trouble is that people are just now recognizing that it’s basketball season. Even the Jazz’s attendance tends to ramp up gradually; the team’s second sellout in 16 games occurred Thursday. The bigger issue in the Beehive Classic’s timing is the status of college basketball in this market.
Generations of Utahns like to believe basketball was invented here, never imagining that football would dominate it to this degree. Here’s the story I like to tell: In 1970, Arizona State brought a No. 6-ranked football team to Provo on a sunny afternoon in October, and BYU drew 18,288 fans. The next school year, when the Marriott Center opened, BYU’s average basketball attendance was 21,818. You have to understand, football season came during the Deer Hunt.
Those numbers illustrate college basketball’s long-ago reign around here, in an era when in-state games were major events – even beyond the two annual Utah-BYU meetings in conference play. Life in Utah is different now.
It’s true that the Salt Palace was considerably smaller than Vivint. The old building would have sold out more easily. The ’80s version of a Beehive Classic – originally pictured as a two-day tournament – may have been more suited to a campus venue.
In any case, when they distribute the box scores Saturday, my eyes will go right to the attendance category. Utahns respond well to what they view as big events. With help from the traveling fan bases of Gonzaga and Arizona, Vivint drew 18,565 in March for a second-round doubleheader in the NCAA Tournament.
That figure is no longer in play, after the arena’s renovation reduced capacity to 18,306. So the baseline numbers I’ll be using Saturday are the attendance from last week’s Southern Utah-Weber State football game (11,811) and a 2010 BYU-Arizona basketball game at Vivint (15,814).
That last comparison might be unfair. Jimmer Fredette is now playing in China.