The day before the inaugural Zions Bank Beehive Classic was staged last December, the seats of Vivint Smart Home Arena were awash in royal blue.
It wasn’t a good sign.
The blue, unsold seats outnumbered the gray on the Ticketmaster chart, highlighting the marketing struggles of a college basketball debut that was more than 30 years in the making.
Saturday’s diagram looks much different. Whether the biggest driving force is the Utah-BYU matchup in the doubleheader’s rotation, lower ticket prices or simply greater awareness, the second annual event will be far more successful.
“Encouraging and exciting” is how arena president Jim Olson described his outlook for Saturday, when he’s projecting an atmosphere resembling “a full house” — although not quite a sellout of the 18,306-seat venue. Anything in the mid-teens would be a big improvement over last December, when the attendance was 7,729. BYU drew 15,814 for a 2010 game vs. Arizona at Vivint in Jimmer Fredette’s senior season; that number may be a reasonable target Saturday.
As of Thursday, rows of seats remained open in most upper bowl sections and lower bowl seats also were available. Another test case will come next December, when the Beehive Classic pairings will be BYU-Utah State and Utah-Weber State. Olson hopes to have discussions before then with the four schools about extending the contract, riding the momentum of this year.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak is taking a conditional approach, going into Saturday. “From a fan perspective, I think it's a great thing, assuming we can pack the place,” he said.
For the Utah-BYU series, Krystkowiak said, “I would probably prefer a campus setting, if I had my choice. It kind of depends on what kind of support we get, how the arena packs out.”
BYU VS. UTAH
When • Saturday, Noon.
TV • ESPNU
UTAH STATE VS. WEBER STATE
When • Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
BYU coach Dave Rose is an advocate. Acknowledging financial considerations, Rose said, “We've got to figure out if everybody still wants to do it. But for me, I think it is great for the state, great for the fans. Players love it. So I hope we can continue it.”
USU coach Craig Smith and Utah athletic director Mark Harlan will experience the event for the first time. “I’m really excited that our guys get to play in an NBA facility like that,” Harland said, having toured the building, “but I want to see some juice. I want to see some excitement in there. I think both teams deserve that. So I’ll be keeping an eye on that, and then we can sit down ... and figure out what’s the best thing going forward.”
If the contract is extended beyond 2019, Utah and BYU presumably would continue to meet at Vivint every third year, while playing on campus in the other two seasons. Last December, the Marriott Center in Provo was not quite sold out for Utah’s visit, with a 9 p.m. tipoff.
Saturday's noon start for Utah vs. BYU comes at the other extreme of the television window, for ESPNU's sake (the Utah State-Weber State game follows on AT&T Sports Net). The event is packaged and priced as a doubleheader, but there's some question about how many fans view it that way. Last year, a healthy number of them arrived at halftime of the first game; others had left by halftime of the second game.
Arena management and the schools' athletic directors picked the second Saturday of December for each date of the three-year contract, citing little conflict with college football. They got a break this week when Weber State's FCS playoff game was booked for Friday instead of Saturday. The downside is the other three schools are trying to sell football bowl tickets this month, while pitching the off-campus basketball event, and students last year cited studying for fall semester final exams as a reason to stay home.
Olson said after the inaugural Classic that he was “very confident that this event is going to continue to grow” and then-Utah athletic director Chris Hill said, “The reality is, we all wanted more people.”
Organizers made pricing adjustments this year, lowering student tickets from $20 to $10 and upper bowl tickets from $30 to $20 for the doubleheader. That strategy seems to have worked, although not all of the $60 lower bowl tickets have been sold. Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment this week offered a package of a lower seat for Saturday and upper bowl ticket for the Jazz’s Dec. 27 game vs. the Philadelphia 76ers (for $76).
Olson has seen more demand for tickets in the past couple of weeks, as fans' minds have turned from football to basketball and the in-state matchups of BYU vs. Weber State and Utah State have stirred interest.
The arena made an initial push in August, bringing the four coaches downtown for an informal news conference. That was believed to be the first such gathering in more than 30 years.
Vivint will host more college basketball in March. First- and second-round games of the NCAA Tournament will be played at the arena as an observance of the 40-year anniversary of the 1979 championship game in Salt Lake City.
Tribune reporter Jay Drew contributed to this story.