Inaugural Big East season update: Butler’s athletics department weighs in on the changes taking place off the court

BEN SIECK | Sports Editor IMG_5011Copy

The Butler men’s basketball team’s inaugural season in the Big East Conference has been difficult at times on the hardwood. Off the hardwood, however, Butler is flourishing when it comes to the team.

Associate Athletic Director Mike Freeman said the team may be in a rough patch—currently sitting at 2-7 in conference play—but fans continue to throw support behind the Bulldogs.

“There’s definitely more interest in our men’s Big East conference games,” Freeman said.

Home attendance numbers thus far have been right in line with last season’s. Home games this season have averaged more than 7,600 attendees. Last year’s average was just under 7,800. Capacity at Hinkle Fieldhouse is currently 10,000.

However, Big East competition has made a difference in attendance during conference games.

Through the first five conference games this season, the average attendance was more than 9,000. Last season, Hinkle housed an average of 8,100 fans in the team’s first five Atlantic 10 Conference games.

From a revenue standpoint, Freeman said this season is on track to meet the athletics department’s goals and expectations.

“The goal was to increase the ticket base, sell more single games, sell more group games, and average more than 8,000 (fans) per (home) game,” Freeman said. “I think we’re on pace to do that. Those weeknight games in two weeks (against Xavier and Creighton) will tell us if we’ll just get there or even higher.”

Butler has done well generating revenue this season beyond just ticket sales. Director of Corporate Sponsorships Joe Gentry said this men’s basketball season has been successful from a marketing standpoint because of Butler’s increased television presence.

“The most important thing for us is when you step back and realize every single game played at Hinkle Fieldhouse is on national television,” Gentry said. “That’s a huge impact for our university.”

Gentry said increasing Butler’s national relevance is a huge aid to for future enrollment, Bulldog Club donations and corporate sponsorship deals.

“When I’m trying to sell advertising, especially on the scorer’s table, it’s going to be on national TV that reaches 90 million people,” Gentry said.

Sports Information Director Jim McGrath said the men’s basketball team playing in the Big East has increased the national media’s attention toward Butler.

“Getting ready to play a St. John’s or a Marquette really attracts the national radar,” McGrath said. “Not to put down any of our past opponents, but they didn’t have the same national impact that we do now that we’re in the Big East.”

McGrath said partnering with Fox Sports has also played a large role in increasing awareness. Having that partnership has helped keep Butler relevant among the national media, even despite the start to conference play.

“Having the Fox partnership means our exposure is right there, they handed it to us,” McGrath said. “In the past, we’ve tried to contact national networks to get a piece on here or there. Now we’re regularly on Fox.”

However, winning trumps marquee matchups alone. McGrath said Butler received more attention as a Top 10 team in the A-10 last season than at any point in the season this season.

Freeman said being a successful team always drives revenue up, but playing in the Big East increases national respect and can bring greater rewards down the road.

“There’s a better chance you can play a good non-conference schedule and then play well enough in the league to make the NCAA tournament,” Freeman said. “Leagues where there are higher-ranked competitors give you a better chance to make the postseason.”

Making noise in the NCAA tournament is one of the ways Freeman said it is easiest for Butler to raise its national profile.

Still, Freeman said the Big East move has been just as beneficial, even before the season started.

“We grew our season ticket base in the offseason, and did well selling single game tickets when we were doing well in the non-conference season,” he said. “I don’t think our fans just see our 2-7 record in conference. They see really good competition and that we are really close in some of these games.”

Freeman said if some of the Big East losses were by greater margins, it might change how fans feel. But he added that Butler’s reputation for being consistently competitive will keep the majority of fans coming back.

The Big East move has been largely successful in the eyes of Butler’s athletics department. However, it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. The department is still working out the kinks associated with entering a new conference.

“We’re still learning everyday what the transition to the Big East is going to mean for ticket sales, sponsorships, special events, everything under the sun,” Freeman said.

The conference did not have any offices or staff when Butler made its move because it was technically a new conference.

“It was different than switching from the Horizon (League) to the Atlantic 10 because they had a conference office and a conference staff already in place,” Gentry said.

Regardless of those shortcomings, Gentry said the positives of the Big East far outweigh any negatives so far.

“I think the biggest thing for Butler University is that it’s an institutional association with the Big East,” Gentry said. “You want our university to be known with other private universities that are highly acclaimed.

“It’s not just one sport, and it’s not just the athletic(s) department. The whole university benefits.”