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Monday, January 28, 2013

Why I’m No Longer An Aces Fan: The Numbers Don’t Lie, UE Should’ve Never Told Roberts Good-Bye

I’ll admit, I use to be an Aces fan. The keywords in that sentence are “use to be.” Growing up in Evansville, the Aces were something you could take pride in, they were larger than life. Although they never reached the pinnacle of being competitive with teams like IU, UK, Purdue, Louisville, etc, etc on a daily basis, they were still a way of life. After all, what other university can say that Jerry Sloan played for them? What other team has a player that scored 65 points in one game?

Before these past few years, Aces basketball stood for something. It was, in a nutshell, what being born and raised in Evansville was all about. It stood for loyalty, tradition, honor, integrity, and most importantly, it stood for progress. When I read through the book Trophies and Tears (you can order your copy by going to the link on the right hand side), I always end each chapter with one thought- I can only imagine what could have been.

When the city of Evansville started struggling in the early 1960s, the government wasn’t talented enough to adapt, innovate, or even stabilize the city. Gone were people like Benjamin Bosse and Hank Roberts. In were large family names like Lloyd, Mosby, and McDonald. When you have a leader(s) that lacks talent, self-confidence, or determination to get a task accomplished, it isn’t too hard for the rest of the group to sense that they’re heading in the wrong direction. After this started happening in the 1960’s, it didn’t take too long for local residents to figure out that Evansville’s future had a big red arrow pointing down. Since that time, Evansville has decreased in population in every U.S Census.

While the destruction of Evansville was taking place, the University of Evansville Men’s Basketball Team was going in the other direction. After hanging FIVE NCAA Div II National Championships (college division back then), UE made the bold and daring decision to go Division I, something even USI hasn’t had the guts to make yet. Right out of the gates, UE was dealt an enormous setback in 1977 (their first year as a Div I team) when a plane carrying their team to Nashville crashed and left no survivors. After that horrific tragedy, most universities would have packed it in. UE did the exact opposite.

In 1978, attendance for Aces games at Roberts started off very slow at 5,095 fans/game (I’m going to have a complete list of year by year attendance figures further down this article) but picked up steadily and quickly. In 1979, attendance rose dramatically to 8,015 fans/game, and by 1982, attendance was up to 10,001 fans/game. This impressive number moved UE up to 32nd in the NCAA attendance rankings. Just five years after entering Div I basketball, and just five years after suffering a horrific plane crash that decimated the Aces program, UE and the Evansville community had come together successfully to bring the program all the way up to 32nd in nation for attendance. This took place while Evansville was losing residents in every US Census since 1960!

After 1982, attendance began to level off a little bit, and by 1985, it had fallen all the way down to 6,245 fans/game which ranked 78th in NCAA Div I Basketball. If this happened today, do you think the local naysayers would have the strength to bring the program back up? Thankfully, times were different for UE and Evansville as a whole in the late 1980’s. Although I felt like the city made an enormous mistake by not building Mayor Vandeveer’s proposed dome downtown, I also felt like the decision to renovate Roberts Stadium proved to be the correct decision as far as the Aces are concerned.

By 1986, the city began discussing if they were going to renovate Roberts Stadium or build a new arena (of course before they even started they had already conceded that they were only going to solve half the problem). When all was said and done, the decision was made to renovate Roberts Stadium in 1990. From 1986 to the final season of old Roberts Stadium (1989), Aces attendance rose from 6,516 fans/game to 9,280 fans/game which moved UE back up to 45th in the attendance rankings.

Like 1977, Roberts Stadium came up big for the Aces once more in the 1990s. From 1991 (the first season after renovations were complete) through the 1996-97 season (6 total seasons), the Aces averaged 10,000 + fans/game every single season. Support for Aces basketball peaked in 1993 when an average of 11,740 fans showed up each game. This moved UE all the way up to 30th in the NCAA attendance rankings. In other words, the renovations to Roberts Stadium WORKED!

In 1997, things began to take a turn for the worse when attendance fell to 8,348 fans/game. Attendance would dangle in the 8,000s until 2001 when it fell to 7,148 fans/game. That takes us to 2002 when our last major shift in attendance took place. In 2002, attendance fell all the way down to 5,822 fans/game.  With the Aces playing in front of crowds that were 50% of what they used to be, a decision had to be made on the future of the Aces program.

Instead of rallying around their program like UE traditionally did, the university began pondering a move to Div III. Thankfully, what was left of the spirit of Aces basketball rose up one last time to prevent this move. The university announced that their alumni had successfully convinced them to stay Div I. The momentum gained from this decision helped UE rise slightly in attendance as the Aces played in front of 6,000 + fans/game from 2003 to 2006.

Basically, from 1977 all the way up to 2006, our community was very lucky in the sense that UE, UE’s alumni, and the UE Men’s basketball team itself kept making the correct decisions time after time. Unlike the city of Evansville, which was still in decline mode, UE was resilient. We can credit this resiliency to one thing- Roberts Stadium. That’s right, Roberts Stadium made the Aces who they are today…

In 2007, it was decision time once more as attendance had fallen to 5,494 fans/game again. This time, UE decided to make the wrong decision which also happens to be the decision that is basically why I’m no longer an Aces fan today. After then mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel won re-election by a landslide, he became convinced that everything he wanted to do was a mandate. One of those mandates was a new arena.

I know I’ve said it a thousand times on this blog, but I’m going to say it once more: I’m not against the construction of the new arena downtown. In fact, I showed up on the day of its ground breaking to support the mayor. However, that doesn’t mean that I agree that UE should have been one of its tenants. If you look at UE and its basketball program from the big picture, you find yourself wondering why the university would make such a dumb decision to play all of their games downtown.

In 2009, the city had finally ironed out all of the details to their arena plan. The plan consisted of placing the new arena on half of the Executive Inn’s lot and half of the lot bounded by Main Street, Locust, 6th Avenue, and MLK. This was easily one of the dumbest decisions ever made in the history of Evansville, but there were two things left that made it even worse in terms of Aces basketball. After thinking and debating about it, the mayor finally announced that the arena would have a hockey sized floor (Roberts’ is basketball sized) and the city would be moving UE in instead of handing them the keys to Roberts Stadium.

Since that time, Aces attendance has fallen once more. After attendance increased to 5,863 fans/game in 2009, it nose dived to 4,832 fans/game in 2010 before rising up slowly in 2011 to 4,910 fans/game (the slight increase can be attributed to the fact that 2011 saw both UNC come to town as well as the final Aces game at Roberts Stadium).

For those who haven’t been following the pattern of UE attendance, here is all 35 years of Aces Division I basketball attendance at Roberts Stadium (in parenthesis is UE’s rank in the NCAA)…

UE 2011 4,910 (614 fans out of Top 100) UE 2010 4,832 (579 fans out of Top 100) UE 2009 5,863 (94th) UE 2008 5,486 (265 fans out of Top 100) UE 2007 5,494 (99th) UE 2006 6,025 (88th) UE 2005 6,318 (85th) UE 2004 6,618 (82nd) UE 2003 6,671 (80th) UE 2002 5,822 (95th) UE 2001 7,148 (72) UE 2000 8,337 (55th) UE 1999 8,587 (53rd) UE 1998 8,177 (55th) UE 1997 8,348 (56th) UE 1996 10,457 (40th) UE 1995 10,489 (37th) UE 1994 10,230 (38th) UE 1993 11,740 (30th) UE 1992 10,198 (36th) UE 1991 10,784 (32nd) UE 1990 9,648 (45th) UE 1989 9,280 (45th) UE 1988 9,122 (43rd) UE 1987 7,923 (54th) UE 1986 6,516 (76th) UE 1985 6,245 (78th) UE 1984 7,975 (52nd) UE 1983 8,434 (45th) UE 1982 10,001 (32nd) UE 1981 8,431 (44th) UE 1980 7,735 (54th) UE 1979 8,015 (48th) UE 1978 5,095 (86th)

Moving forward, we were told that moving the Aces into what is now known as the Ford Center was the correct decision for both the Aces, the Ford Center, and the city of Evansville in general. But so far, the statistics tell a different story. Attendance per game for the Aces first season in the Ford Center was a whopping…

UE 2012 5,135 (102 fans out of Top 100)

That’s right, we spent $125 million on a new arena and we have a primary tenant whose attendance only increased 235 fans/game even with Butler and Indiana coming to town. One would think that was bad enough, but it gets even WORSE. Let’s take a look at attendance of each Aces home game this year…

USI                                   7358
Illinois Springfield               4753
Buffalo                               3572
Yale                                   4112
Western Ill                          4431
Alabama A&M                  3510
Miami (OH)                        3481
Murray St.                          6302          
Alabama State                    4116
Oakland City                       3254         
Missouri State                     3721
Southern Illinois                   6032        
Wichita State                       5485
Bradley                                4183       Avg (4594)

Technically, the Aces highest drawing game, which was against USI, may not count towards attendance since it was an exhibition game. But in the act of fairness, I am going to throw both the 7,358 fans at the USI game and the 4,753 fans at the Illinois Springfield game into the mix. When we add up attendance for all 14 games UE has played this season at the Ford Center, we get a total of 64,310 fans. In other words, 6 and a half sold out concerts would have generated more people than the Aces have all year. We then take the 64,310 fans and divide it by 14 (the # of games played) so that we get a current total of 4,594 fans per game.

So, as you look through the 35 years of attendance at Roberts Stadium, you will notice that the worst year for the Aces came in 2010 when only 4,832 fans showed up for each game. That figure is 238 fans HIGHER than the current average attendance at the Ford Center. In other words, UE is renting a more expensive arena while their attendance has dropped after only increasing a tad the first year.
If you think attendance for UE’s Men’s Basketball Team is bad, take a look at what the women are pulling in this year…

USI                      N/A
San Jose State    309
UT- Martin          204
Saint Louis           328
Drake                   333
Creighton              858
SIU                        829     AVG ( 2861/6 = 477)

As bad as the Aces men’s team is drawing, their lowest attended game, which was Oakland City at 3,254 fans/game is 393 fans more than what the UE women have brought in TOTAL for the 6 games where attendance figures were given (if you look at photos of the game against USI, it doesn’t look much better).

I don’t know about you but it seems pretty obvious that the Ford Center was not built for teams to only draw crowds in the hundreds instead of thousands. And given the fact that Mr. Scott Schoenike has told us numerous times through numerous sources that the Ford Center is now almost completely booked and will have to start pushing some events out as the year progresses, these figures become solid proof that the Aces and the Ford Center are just not a good match outside of 3-4 men’s games a year.

Some people have argued that while these figures are lower the decision to move into the Ford Center was a good one because the arena is new, it will improve recruiting, and it is built for future Aces attendance improvements.

First of all, the Ford Center is NOT built for the Aces to improve their attendance as it is nearly 2,000 seats smaller than Roberts Stadium. In fact, attendance from 7 seasons where the Aces played at Roberts Stadium are greater than the capacity of the Ford Center (Not that I expect that to be a problem anytime soon). 

Secondly, the Ford Center has not improved recruiting as the Aces are currently in 4th place in the Missouri Valley Conference which isn’t as good as it normally is. Lastly, a newer arena doesn’t translate into a better team or even a better deal. Look at my review of Southern Illinois’ arena ( ), that team made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2006!

The most important thing I would like for you to take out of this article is the fact that ALL of this could have been prevented if the Aces would have once again stepped up and made the right decisions for their athletic department like they have done so well in the past.  Not only could things have been better for those who look at this area through purple and orange tinted glasses, it could have also been better for those who want to improve Downtown Evansville with the Ford Center.

What should have happened?

Step 1: City donates Roberts Stadium and the land around it to UE.

Step 2 : City constructs the Ford Center while leaving open 3-4 dates for UE to play top drawing teams like USI, IU, Butler, Creighton, etc, etc. After that, the city fills in the rest of the dates with premier concerts and shows that fill more seats and thus generate more revenue. The city also schedules a few more USI games against notable teams like Kentucky Wesleyan and Northern Kentucky.

Step 3: Instead of dumping $3.3 into a dull, small, and boring practice facility, UE redirects the funds to renovating Roberts Stadium which was estimated to run between $4-4.5 million. UE either decides to demolish the precast concrete above street level and start out with a small Roberts Stadium (4,500-5,000 seats) or decides to leave the precast concrete but expand the length of the floor so that low rent teams like the Evansville Rage can play their home games there (about 8,000-,10,000 seats).

Step 4: UE finances the rest of the renovations by selling naming rights to the gates, commemorative bricks, naming rights to the plazas, streets, and rooms in and around Roberts Stadium.

Step 5: UE schedules low rent teams like the Rage, Crush, and Skyhawks that cannot afford the Ford Center to generate revenue. Trade shows and other events could have also been held there. The facility, like other college arenas, is left open during the day for students to walk and jog around for exercise.

With those 5 steps, UE would have had a paid off arena and would no longer be shelling out thousands of dollars each game in rent (I hear the Aces pay $10,000 a game plus they have to share revenue in other amenities as well with the city and Ford Center). This would have placed UE in an excellent financial position, it would have allowed them to play their games closer to their campus (which is getting close to connecting to Roberts Stadium anyways), and it would have given them plenty of room to expand in the future. Heck, they even could have built a football stadium in the parking lot.

On the other hand, the city would have come out better as well. Being able to schedule only the Aces games that draw big crowds would have allowed the Ford Center to fill the current low turnout game days with acts that would sell more seats. Mr. Schoenike told me last year that he could fill every single day at the Ford Center up in the blink of an eye.

But unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It turns out, the negativity and the horrible way our local government runs our city finally caught up with the Aces. Now, we have a mayor whose buddy-buddy with those who run UE. In fact, you’ll even find a few names from UE and its athletic department on his campaign report. What use to be a well-run university, is now a droid that has been assimilated by the city of Evansville.

Yes, I would still be an Aces fan today if there only problem was attendance. If UE was genuinely giving an effort to do the right thing, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. But here’s the problem- UE is no longer the UE I grew up with. Now, those who run the university have cashed in on UE’s rich basketball history while being the one and only generation who finally let the city throw Roberts Stadium under the bus.

A few years ago, I remember someone from the basketball team (not a player and I’m not going to name names) was on the local news saying that UE is bigger than Roberts Stadium and that it will move on without it. Well, I hate to break it to this person, but Roberts Stadium made UE, not vice-versa as we saw firsthand in the article from 1986 up above.

By far and away, the worst thing UE did to Roberts Stadium was there performance these past few years while its future was in limbo. First, I emailed one of the main professors in the engineering department to see if he could spare just a few minutes to look at the Roberts Stadium structure. He didn’t even have the time of day to email me back. Then, when the task force was assembled, UE brought NOTHING to the table. No ideas, no support, and certainly no cooperation. But as soon as their glorious alumni mayor made the decision to demolish it,  guess who was first in line to cash in on Roberts Stadium’s bricks?...

I can’t help but feel like UE selling out Roberts Stadium by collecting on its bricks is also a perfect microcosm for the state of UE Basketball itself…

Today’s University of Evansville Purple Aces aren't your father’s University of Evansville Purple Aces. Unlike previous generations, these Aces didn't stand behind Roberts Stadium. A few weeks ago, the Courier & Press published an article where Venuworks and Ford Center director summed up perfectly my thoughts on the whole situation when he said, “ You don’t have to hate Roberts Stadium to like the Ford Center.”

It’s a shame that message never made it to UE. It’s a shame the Aces weren't willing to stand behind Roberts Stadium in any way, shape, or form because they were too dumb to understand that preserving this arena had nothing to do with the construction of the Ford Center. In fact, it whether they played 0 games or all of their games in Roberts Stadium or the Ford Center, this arena could have still been productive for them just like it could have been for our city at large.

It appears the brain drain has finally hit the last great thing in Evansville- Purple Aces Basketball. And now, it also appears that local residents have finally figured it out as attendance figures have fallen well below the worst of the worst years at Roberts Stadium. Because of their own stubbornness, UE will never own their own arena outright, they will never be able to market their own history to recruits and prospective students, and they will never be able to say that they stood up for Roberts Stadium like previous generations of Aces did. And that….. Is why I am no longer an Aces fan!

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