The Pitt men's basketball team pulled out a 71-63 win over Big South opponent High Point on Tuesday night, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many witnesses to attest to that fact.
That's because attendance at the Petersen Events Center hit an all-time low for the regular season, according to Craig Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who added that the meager turnout for the game broke a record set 13 days before, when UC Santa Barbara came to town.
In total, 2,399 fans showed up for Tuesday night's game, meaning just 19 percent of the Pete's 12,508 seats were filled. Attendance for the UC Santa Barbara game, for comparison, was 2,685, and the attendance totals for those two games are part of a worrisome trend for the program that stretches back several years.
Through the first four home games this season, Pitt’s average attendance is 2,876, which is less than 25 percent of capacity and less than half of last season’s lackluster average turnout through the same period, which was 6,192. That figure was down from 7,393 the previous year, which fell from 8,893 the year before that.
The trend of diminishing early-season attendance began after Pitt joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 2013-14 season, though it’s worth noting the move initially boosted turnout. However, as Pitt began to struggle in the conference, attendance took a hit, and the unpopular decision to hire Kevin Stallings appears to have exacerbated the issue.
To say the least, enthusiasm for the team seems to have waned considerably since Stallings took the reins from former head coach Jamie Dixon in 2016, as attendance noticeably lagged early on and never recovered in the longtime Vanderbilt coach’s inaugural season in Oakland.
Specifically, the Pete saw the lowest average attendance in its history during the 2016-17 season, drawing just 8,327 fans per game. And if early attendance figures from this season are anything to go by, Pitt may well see that record shattered by the end of this season.
One could write off the low turnout as a byproduct of the weak opponents the Panthers have faced so far, but they played similar teams over the past few years and still managed to draw larger crowds. The real issue seems to be that Pitt’s inexperienced squad has struggled at times to contend with those opponents, and there’s little hope of improvement in the near future.
Despite that, the expectation is that attendance will pick up, as it usually does, when Pitt's conference schedule gets underway. But attendance for conference games also dipped last season, as the team struggled to a 4-14 record against ACC opponents. In those matchups, Pitt drew an average crowd of 9,749, which was down from 10,657 in Dixon’s last season.
On top of that, the outlook for the Panthers in conference play is absolutely bleak. KenPom expects Pitt to go winless in the ACC, per Meyer, and Sports Illustrated more charitably predicted a 2-16 conference record for the team in its ACC preview.
Given those grim expectations, the lack of top recruits and returning stars, and the fact that Stallings and the Panthers have done little to prove they can contend with middling teams, let alone the elite of the ACC, it seems unlikely as many fans as last season will be drawn to the Pete to watch the team struggle through its conference gauntlet.
With that said, chances are there will still be a decent pickup in ticket sales when top teams and rivals like Duke and Syracuse come to town. But given the Panthers' apparent trajectory this season, it seems unlikely that will be enough to save them from making dubious history in back-to-back seasons under Stallings.