‘Spectrum Magic is real’ and it’s keeping college basketball fandom alive at Utah State

Attendance at college basketball games has gone down 12 of the last 15 years. At Utah State, the magic is still alive.

Logan • The man they once called Wild Bill doesn’t look like he used to.

Bill Sproat’s wild, jet-black hair has been replaced by a bald head. Instead of a chinstrap beard, his face is framed by thick-rimmed glasses and a gray, speckled mane. Most noticeably, Sproat wears a plaid shirt that covers his whole torso at Utah State basketball games now.

There was a time Sproat seemed to strip down behind the basket at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum every weekend — wearing some sort of Disney character costume that revealed his 300-pound body — to get opposing players to miss free throws. It started as a way to distract Jimmer Fredette and BYU. Then it morphed into a bit so famous that Julie Foudy interviewed him on ESPN and Seth Davis wrote a Sports Illustrated story on “Wild Bill.”

But as Sproat stood on the sidelines at the Spectrum on Saturday, it’s clear that era is behind him now. Even when the student section chanted for him to “Take it off,” he shook his head in refusal. It’s a new generation’s turn to put their stamp on Spectrum Magic.

“The crowd was amazing when I was here,” Sproat said. “But this crowd is just as good, if not better. It’s been fun to watch. They’re creative. They’re loud.”

And they’re starting to show up — more of them, more often.

Sproat embodied the days when weekday college basketball games on ESPN were must-see TV. In 2008, when Sproat was starting college, the sport hit its record height for attendance overall.

Because of it, cult-like figures like him were born. Lightning rods for frenzied fandom.

But it’s no secret the sport is in a more precarious spot now. Attendance has dropped in 12 of the last 15 seasons. On average, there were fewer people at games in 2023 than at any point in the last 50 years, dating back to 1976.

It leads to the question, will there be another Sproat, or is college basketball’s peak behind it?

Around the state, there has been some improvement in men’s college basketball attendance. Utah’s attendance is up this year after a significant drop off in the last decade.

In Logan, attendance at games is down from the Aggies’ heydays, but it hasn’t been as steep of a decline as in some other places. From 2015 to 2023, attendance has only dropped 17%. This year, they’re averaging nearly 8,000 fans a night.

“Spectrum Magic is real,” USU guard Josh Uduje said. “[We were] told that before we ever played a game here, and we saw that [in a sold-out Colorado State game]. The crowd was very present.”

Depending on who you ask, there are the three horsemen that explain why college basketball is down.

For one, conference realignment constantly shuffles programs based on where football can generate the most television revenue. Even a basketball school like UConn once left the Big East for the American in chase of football money. It leaves basketball teams, and storied rivalries that made the sport compelling, an afterthought.

After all, the entire reason Sproat started his act was because Utah State hated BYU (and they actually played).

The introduction of name, image and likeness hasn’t necessarily helped, either — encouraging players to chase the biggest paycheck rather than stay home. Just look at the top 2023 basketball recruits. The top seven players in the class decided to play college outside their home state. Fans who watch players grow up don’t get to see them in college anymore.

And then there’s the transfer portal and the revolving door of coaching movement that disrupts the continuity that breeds fans like Sproat. Year to year, rosters and coaches look different — making it harder to find a connection.

Yet, Utah State’s been able to manage around that (even if it wasn’t entirely its choice).

Its football team hasn’t commanded a power conference invitation. That’s allowed the Aggies to stay in the Mountain West since 2013 and play many of their long-time rivals. UNLV comes twice a year. Boise State, San Diego State and Nevada come to town, too.

Fans have memories of those teams dating back generations. In 1990, Jerry Tarkanian and the Runnin’ Rebels came to the Spectrum and were waterbombed before the second half and the entire bench was drenched. Two fans were charged.

When Nevada came to the Spectrum a few years back, a player got so frustrated he punched a fire extinguisher and was held back from charging the USU locker room.

“The fire extinguisher game,” Brian Woolston recalled with a smile. “...There are just a lot of really positive memories in this building against those teams.”

Other schools, especially in the Power Five, have gone all in on football as they changed conferences. Utah, for example, is bringing in more revenue, but the Runnin’ Utes have struggled to draw fans in recent years. The Utes used to be top 25 in basketball attendance back in 2016 (averaging almost 13,000 fans a night). They got half that, an average of about 6,700 fans in 2023.

“I played volleyball at Utah,” USU fan Shauna Jeppsen said as the crowd filled in around her in the Spectrum. “Oh yeah [you can tell football is king there]. I think here, is it more equal, with maybe even more basketball emphasis.”

Utah State also might benefit from the fact that their roster isn’t put together through NIL. Recently, it’s had more local players and USU legacies fans know. Sam Merrill, now playing in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers, comes from a long line of Aggies. Starting point guard Mason Falslev is from a few minutes away in Benson.

“We have an interest in how they do,” said Marty Skaeblund, a longtime fan.

It’s a formula that still produces sellouts (like against Colorado State two weeks ago) and engaged fans.

“When we finally took the lead [against Colorado State] I couldn’t hear,” head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “But that’s Spectrum Magic at its best.”

There are also inherent advantages Utah State has that other schools don’t have. It’s in a remote part of Utah where there isn’t much competition with professional sports or other schools (Utah is 90 minutes away and BYU is over two hours).

“There is not a lot to do in Cache Valley,” Sproat said. “Might as well get crazy at a game. It’s fun.”

It’s fandom like that that leads to generations of fans coming to games. Skaeblund has been coming so long that he watched Wayne Estes play in the 1960s. He remembers his dad offering Estes a job, back when some of the players would take summer gigs in the offseason.

“And a lot of people come back,” he said. “People graduate from here and come back and keep going to games. There is a lot of local support.”

Last Saturday, beating Fresno to go 17-2 and No. 18 in the country, Sproat led one chant with the fans. Then he left it to the packed student section to do the rest.

In the front row, there was a guy in a hula skirt dressed like Sproat did back in the day.