ATHENS - Georgia basketball attendance still lags behind almost every other SEC program, as the relatively meager crowd on Tuesday showed. Despite that, the turnout at Georgia games is actually up from last year, bucking the trend around the rest of the conference.
Georgia's average home attendance this year is 6,514, ranking ahead of only Auburn and Texas A&M in the SEC. But Georgia's home attendance last year was 6,198, the second-worst in the SEC.
It also bears noting that this year Georgia has not had the benefit of home games against Kentucky, Florida or Tennessee, which are the top three road draws in the SEC. Last year each of those teams visited Stegeman Coliseum.
The flip side of that is that Georgia Tech did come to town this year, and the result was a sellout. Last year that game was at Georgia Tech.
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Still, the fact Georgia's attendance has increased, even slightly, puts it in the minority in the SEC:
Eight programs have experienced drops from their average last season: Missouri (about 2,500 less per game over last year), Tennessee (about 1,500), Texas A&M (about 1,100), Vanderbilt (about 1,100), Alabama (about 600), Arkansas (about 500), Auburn (700), Kentucky (about 400).
The other five SEC schools that have seen increases are Ole Miss (about 1,300), LSU (about 1,200), South Carolina (about 900), Florida (about 600), Mississippi State (about 200).
The SEC's overall home attendance is down this year: 10,186 per home game, compared to 10,503 last year.
Georgia's increase can be attributed in part to the team's performance in SEC play. But student attendance has seen a noticeable increase as well, thanks to the recent change to let students in free of charge.
The average student attendance turnout this year is 1,047 per game, according to UGA. Last year the average was 762.
"It (overall attendance) has been a little better than it has in the past, and part of that's probably the decision we made with the student entry," Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said.
UGA had been talking about letting students in free for several years. They ended up being forced into it by divine intervention: The bad weather the day of the Vanderbilt game led them to let students in for free. Overall attendance for that game was down (6,234) but student turnout was above average.
"We had a great (student) attendance the Vanderbilt game. So having seen that, and witnessed the energy it brought to the arena, we continued it," McGarity said. "If anything it's made them aware of the game, and it's made it as easy as possible to attend."
In fact, students will once again be let in free for next Wednesday's home finale against Mississippi State, McGarity said. And the policy could be carried into next year.
"It's something we'll discuss as a staff, absolutely," McGarity said.
The atmosphere at home basketball games has been an issue for awhile at Georgia. Last year's average was the lowest in 19 years. The turnout usually tracks with the performance of the team, but not always, as Tuesday's home game against Missouri showed: Despite being alone in third place in the SEC, and playing the highest-rated team that will visit Stegeman this season, the crowd was a meager 5,229.
The reason for that was probably the tipoff of 9 p.m. The start time has plagued other programs too: When the Bulldogs had a 9 p.m. game at Tennessee last week the result was a weak crowd, at least for that school.
Georgia's previous home game, against Ole Miss, was a sellout. That game was on a Saturday at 1:45 p.m. Georgia's challenge with that late a start time is that it usually needs to draw a few thousand fans from outside the Athens area in order to have a big crowd.
"It shouldn't affect student attendance, because students are night owls these days anyway," McGarity said. "I do think it affects those who have to travel, say, an hour-and-a-half radius outside of Athens. Especially those who are working the next day. It does create a roadblock there."
Georgia's highest periods for attendance came during the Jim Harrick years: 9,857 per game in 2002-03 was the highest average in school history.
"Obviously those numbers are attainable here," McGarity said. "It's just we're not here right now."
Asked if that was a source of frustration, McGarity pointed out that attendance at all sports - including football - was a concern. That's been a recurring point for McGarity and other athletics directors, and why efforts have been made to improve the atmosphere at games.
"It's something that we focus on, and we will continue to focus on as far as making sure we create atmospheres that make people want to come back," McGarity said.