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Kim: Oregon fans lack enthusiasm as NCAA tournament approaches

I briefly spoke with former Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington on Saturday morning. We discussed the current state of the Pit Crew and Oregon men’s basketball since transitioning from McArthur Court to Matthew Knight Arena.

If you didn’t already know, Harrington was one of 10 original members of the Pit Crew and was heavily involved with the early success of what was then a nationally feared student fan group, one that used to literally and figuratively rattle the gym in the early 2000s. Harrington was known for leading this rowdy group of students all throughout his time at Oregon.

To put it simply, Harrington wasn’t comfortable speaking on the topic. Talking while at his son’s soccer game, Harrington seemed distracted and was hesitant during our conversation. Our conversation ended when his son entered the game. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to talk or was disinterested. It was because he hasn’t been as involved with the program as of late. He just didn’t feel comfortable commenting on a team he hasn’t been around lately.

I don’t blame him.

While the Ducks are on the verge of making the NCAA tournament in three straight years for the first time in program history, the level of interest in the team has been below what would be expected.

There are a few reasons for this.

First, is the lack of continuity among players that have played under Altman since his arrival in 2010. Excluding Jonathan Loyd, Oregon hasn’t had many players stay longer than two years. Most of that has to do with Altman’s decision to build a program around transfers. For fans, this has made it hard to connect with the team, especially following an alleged sexual assault case that dismissed three players last spring.

Second, is the fact that Oregon is first and foremost, a football school. Beginning with Chip Kelly and now continuing with Mark Helfrich, there is little doubt that football is at the center of attention. It’s hard to live up to that atmosphere, that experience.

Third, is the fans’ attachment to promotions and product giveaways – specifically the occasional Nike customized shoes that are given away at home games through a raffle. Of course the Pit Crew is going to take advantage of their unique relationship with Phil Knight and Nike, but to say that their reliance on attracting students to games for free products is sustainable for long-term success, would be a lie.

“We need to be able to create long-term fans and you do that by having a great experience,”Senior Associate Athletic Director Craig Pintens said. “You can’t do a t-shirt every game or free food every game because then it’s not special and it loses that appeal. We need to examine everything and do a better job.”

But even with these realities, there is little excuse for how underwhelming Matthew Knight Arena’s environment has been this season. No one is arguing its world-class infrastructure and updated specs. I am however, starting to question why fans aren’t showing up.

Based on numbers given to me by Pintens, the average student attendance for this season was 989 per game. Last season, they were 1,539. In 2012, it was 1,541. In 2011, it was 1,574.

Now, considering the fact that in the Pac-12, attendance rates for men’s hoops are down as a whole, it’s not surprising to see Oregon isn’t an exception to this trend. It is however, surprising when a team can’t reach full student capacity when playing then No. 9 Utah on senior night.

When I was covering the final Civil War of the year at Gill Coliseum, I couldn’t hear myself think. The Oregon State crowd was electric and the fans were constantly on their feet. The energy was contagious. The place felt like a sauna. This is how a college arena should look and feel. Gill Coliseum holds 9,604 and there were 9,339 at this game.

I don’t know about you, but when Oregon State students pack their smaller 66-year-old gym and make it rock louder than Oregon’s state-of-the-art venue, there’s a problem.

Follow Hayden Kim on Twitter @HayDayKim

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