The TribUte newsletter: Why there won’t — and shouldn’t be — a curtain call at the Huntsman Center

Utah is still having trouble filling the iconic building’s lower bowl, which seats 8,500 for basketball.

When the University of Utah athletic department decided in April 2020 that it would curtain off the upper bowl of the Huntsman Center for basketball games, I supported the idea.

Sure, the 15,000-seat building, the largest in the Pac-12, was going to a capacity of 8,500 in the lower bowl, but that was OK. That capacity in that building would make for a more intimate, more engaged atmosphere. Furthermore, after Scott Kull, then Utah’s deputy athletic director for external operations, told me at the time that, despite average announced crowds exceeding 10,000, they had not welcomed above 8,500 fans in a while, I was even more convinced curtaining off the upper bowl was the right move.

It made perfect sense then, and almost three years and two non-COVID seasons later, it still makes perfect sense now, mostly because there is no good reason to raise the curtains.

This topic has become such a toxic, everyday complaint among a loud minority of fans, that earlier this week, Utah felt compelled to have its assistant AD for marketing and fan experience, Matt Thomas, talk to and field questions from reporters in an effort to clarify the situation.

This topic was already pretty simple, but credit to Thomas because his 10 minutes in front of three media outlets served to make it even more simple.

Per Thomas, once a given game drops below “a couple hundred tickets remaining in the lower bowl,” he and his staff will provide a recommendation to senior staff on what to do from there. If the curtains were to go up, the upper bowl would be $5 general admission.

The problem there is, Utah hasn’t been close to crossing that threshold. The average number of available tickets for remaining home games as of Tuesday when Thomas spoke was 1,200.

A lot of Utah fans have done a lot of complaining about this upper bowl situation, but not enough have taken action. If you’re arguing the upper bowl should be open for $5 GA to draw more fans, that’s not going to happen; Utah’s focus is to fill the lower bowl, where there are $10 GA (in Sections G and F) and $15 reserved seats available. There are some tickets available on the secondary market for as little as $5 before fees.

Utah cannot currently fill the lower bowl, so if you open the upper bowl now, the crowd will be scattered and the place will look more empty than it already is.

The athletic department declined to say what percentage of the lower bowl is claimed by season-ticket holders and, more importantly in my opinion, how many tickets Utah is actually scanning at the door on a game-by-game basis.

That latter figure is anemic, as you know if you’ve opened your eyes at the Huntsman Center this season. Thomas did say that about 20-30% of people who have tickets are not showing up. That’s a lot, but frankly, I am empathetic there to a point. Parking is a bit of an issue, which Utah has tried to alleviate this season with shuttle service; the tipoff times are sometimes not great; the nonconference schedule didn’t have a marquee on-campus opponent; and the Huntsman Center concessions are roundly crushed by fans.

Thomas noted you can transfer the tickets to friends and family, sell them, or give them back to the ticket office, which will find use for them.

I don’t have a great answer for fixing Utah’s attendance problems.

It’s up to fans to act.

The curtains were not up for Washington State, nor would they be up for Washington. Stanford, Cal, and Colorado are also likely to see the black curtains blocking off the upper bowl. Utah might normally have a shot at a real crowd Feb. 23 for a UCLA team with enough juice to get to the Final Four. But a 9 p.m. tip on a Thursday? No.

Circle Feb. 25 vs. USC. Tipoff is TBD, but if it’s in the early evening, and the Trojans are headed for the NCAA Tournament, and the Utes are still looking good for a postseason berth, maybe, maybe, you get the curtains up for that one.

If not, it will be with good reason.

Other things on my mind

• With the first NCAA Transfer Portal window for FBS players closing on Wednesday, there is no question that Utah football made out well, specifically in terms of who left. Attrition is a natural part of the process, but there isn’t one Utah guy who left where you’re thinking, yikes, not great. Losing Micah Bernard’s versatility out of the backfield is a tangible loss, yes. That’s the one that stands out most, but that’s not a dire loss.

The next portal window is May 1-15. That’s after spring practice is over, at which point maybe there’s some writing on the wall at certain positions and Utah loses some more. For now, personnel-wise, it’s a win for the Utes.

• Tavion Thomas is set to play in the East-West Shrine Bowl on Feb. 2, and he has indicated on Twitter that he has an NFL Combine invite later down the road. That’s a lot of opportunities to work out in front of NFL personnel, and potentially a lot of team interviews where he’s going to have to explain what happened at Utah last season. How Thomas performs, and how NFL personnel view him over the next three months of draft prep, will be interesting.

• Utah’s indoor football practice facility is going to be more expensive than originally thought.

• The Utes’ partnership with Under Armour, meanwhile, remains strong.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.