After competitive games but low turnout, what are the next steps for the Beehive Classic?

While organizers were happy to get the instate basketball event off the ground, they’re still searching for ways to drive attendance.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Elijah Bryant (3) tries to keep up with Weber State Wildcats guard Jerrick Harding (10), in Beehive Classic basketball action at the Vivint SmartHome Arena, Saturday, December 9, 2017.

It had been a dream years in the making, and finally Jim Olson was walking through it.

On Saturday night as he strolled through the remodeled Vivint Smart Home Arena concourse, the arena president saw shades of red, purple and blue that made his heart swell. The inaugural Beehive Classic, the first in-state exhibition between the four biggest basketball programs in state, had drawn out a number of passionate local fans, clad in their school colors.

The one issue? Everyone would’ve liked to see more of those fans. Olson, the arena president and one of the chief organizers of the Classic, said it’s something that’s already been discussed — and will be discussed further as they try to drum up more support for the next two years of the event.

“Fans, as well as our organization have been talking for a very long time. It was a great effort from our organization,” he said. “We’re very confident that this event is going to continue to grow and fans will be able to see a couple of great college basketball games as the teams rotate. We are very optimistic.”

It was a milestone in itself that Utah, BYU, Utah State and Weber State were able to come to the table and hammer out an agreement to play the Beehive Classic in the first place. It’s been a buzzed-about idea for years, and organizers and sponsors had tried to put it together for at least the last three seasons. It happily coincided with the renovation of the arena, and the chance to introduce new fans to the enhanced seating, food options and amenities (not to mention no Utah college currently serves alcohol at their games).

But while coaches and players enjoyed being able to play in an NBA arena, and the fans who did arrive were treated to games that were close at the finish, there was a certain energy that was lacking. The listed attendance was 7,729 for both games. Compared with the average home attendance for Utah (11,760) and BYU (12,674), it’s an underwhelming figure, and not that much higher than the non-conference average attendance of USU (7,512) and Weber State (6,990), who would certainly see a surge in home attendance for a local opponent.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Gabe Bealer (30) tosses a pass around Utah State Aggies guard Sam Merrill (3) and Utah State Aggies guard DeAngelo Isby (0), in Beehive Classic basketball action at the Vivint SmartHome Arena, Saturday, December 9, 2017.

While there was a distinct swell to the crowd in middle of the Classic, the first half of the early game and the second half of the late game had a more sparse audience.

“This is a great event — it’s obviously a great venue,” Utah State coach Tim Duryea said afterward. “I hope we can keep this going. I was a little disappointed in the crowd to start the game.”

That sentiment was shared by several organizers of the Classic. Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee sat next to Jazz president Steve Starks, one of the architects of the event, behind the Wildcats bench. One of the things they talked about was attendance and how to increase it.

The Beehive Classic prevents some unique challenges: For example, do you package the event in your season ticket sales? After some consideration, Weber State decided not to, given that they’d be making season ticket holders pay for a game that would make them drive down to Salt Lake City. For fans who wanted to simply walk up and buy, the cheapest available tickets were $30, but to sit in the lower bowl it was more. For a two-game package, that’s not a bad price — but not every fan seemed interested in staying two games.

While Bovee said he was happy on many levels with the event, those particular items are still under discussion. The organizers feel that the foundation of the event is good, but the pricing might still be scaled.

“It’s a great night of basketball,” he said. “I know it’s working in Indiana. Butler, Purdue, Indiana and Notre Dame. It’s a matter of figuring out the right price points. Fan bases are going to be loyal to their team.”

There’s also a matter of student support: Tickets for students were priced at $20. With the cost and the challenges of final exams, that translated to a low student turnout.

Utah athletic director Chris Hill compared it, somewhat, to trying to make a conference tournament environment more collegiate. Everyone agrees that student presence adds to the atmosphere, but it’s not always easy to get them to the game when it’s not at home.

“There are always challenges when you get off campus, that’s just kind of the nature of stuff,” Hill said. “It needs to be a neutral site. There’s no question that Vivint is the best place. It’s just more challenging to get their attention when that happens.”

The overall sentiment among the schools and organizers is that Saturday’s games were a huge first step. Tweeted Starks after the game: “The best part about the event is that it finally happened.”

The four schools are under contract for two more years, and in future meetings, they plan to discuss pricing, promotion and logistics (and possibly even expansion if they determine other in-state schools can add to the event). The long-term vision is that the Beehive Classic will draw name recognition — that college basketball fans won’t just want to come to support their school, but for a full slate of passionate local rivalry games that are a great draw on their own.

“We want to stick with it,” Hill said. “The reality is, we all wanted more people. When you do something the first time around, you learn, you adjust, and hopefully you get better.”

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