GRAND FORKS -- Every so often, a University of North Dakota basketball game is scheduled at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center on a weekday during a 9 to 5 timeframe.
Like no other Division I school around, Grand Forks attendance doesn’t suffer during business hours because UND basketball fans are retirement age.
That’s not a compliment to the state of the program. It’s a reminder of the life that needs to be breathed into the basketball scene on campus.
UND Athletic Director Bill Chaves can put that into motion later this month when he picks out his replacement for the departing Brian Jones, who resigned last Wednesday to take an associate head coaching job at Illinois State.
In his first big hire at the top of the UND athletic department, Chaves has an opportunity to re-energize a fan base fueled mostly by fans who were hooked on the product back in the NCAA Division II days at Hyslop Sports Center.
At times at the Betty, there are more students in Jones’ huddles than students in the student section.
Chaves’ hire is going to have to move the needle with that young demographic, and the university’s administration is going to have to ante up -- in salaries and facilities -- if they want to be relevant in the Summit League.
UND men’s basketball’s 2018-19 average attendance was 1,664 fans -- the second-lowest average in at least 25 years.
It’s a troubling trend, too. When UND went to the Big Dance for the first time, the school averaged 2,139 fans in 2016-17.
In 2017-18, the average dipped to 1,865.
These figures are a far cry from, say, 1992-93 when UND averaged 4,209 fans.
There’s a laundry list of reasons attendance has suffered in the last 15 years -- strictly looking at wins and losses isn’t enough.
There’s scheduling, for one. The Division I transition wasn’t easy, and the schools coming through Grand Forks in the early years, during the Great West Conference days, didn’t have the name recognition of the Division II era.
Even when UND elevated into the Big Sky Conference, name recognition and regional rivalries were few. For every anticipated matchup with Montana, UND played conference games against Idaho State, Southern Utah and Sacramento State.
But the 2018-19 season was supposed to be different, as the school transitioned into the Summit League against regional rivals North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State.
Although the Summit League’s strange scheduling setup, which meant the Fighting Hawks hosted all three Dakota schools on Wednesday nights this year, didn’t help, average attendance as low as 1,664 should be a red flag.
It’s not all about a new coach, though. That alone won’t put butts in the seats. UND better make sure Jones’ successor isn’t fighting up and down I-29 with one arm tied behind his back.
The university is going to have to address High Performance Center Phase 2, an additional practice court, the assistant coach salary pool and general upgrades to a flawed Betty setup.
And this isn’t a new development for Chaves. He knows UND has ground to make up with basketball funding and resources. But he’s going to need help from the rest of the administration, as well as donors.
When Chaves makes this hire later this month, he can’t immediately reverse the years the school has failed to keep up with the funding levels of regional rivals, but he can at least get the ship pointed in the right direction.