CHAMPAIGN — As Kevin Hambly entered Huff Hall on the morning of Sept. 23, uppermost in the Illinois coach’s mind was whether his volleyball team would bounce back from a three-set loss two nights earlier.
But Hambly also was curious to find out something else: How many fans would show up for a rare Sunday afternoon match, with church services and a Chicago Bears telecast among the alternatives competing for their time and attention?
Hambly would not be disappointed by either development. A total of 3,209 made their way into Huff Hall to see the Illini pull out a five-set victory against Wisconsin.
“I was really pleased with that,” said Hambly, referring specifically to the size of the crowd. “It made me more optimistic that we could reach that number of 3,000.”
Illini fans might have heard Hambly refer to “that number” from time to time. When the ninth-year UI staff member was promoted to head coach on Jan. 8, 2009, Hambly set about educating himself on all aspects of the program. That process included seeking out perspectives on attendance potential from a variety of sources — among them then-associate athletic director Vince Ille; former Illini players; ex-UI volleyball coach Mike Hebert, under whom volleyball crowd figures first took a major leap; and local media members.
“I wanted to know ‘What are we capable of as a program?’ ” Hambly said. “ ‘What can we pull off?’ so I can set my kind of goals.”
Hambly sums up the feedback he received this way: “You have a great venue. You get 2,000 (fans and) it feels great, but 3,000 feels like it’s rockin’ and it’s ridiculous. And if you put out a great product, that’s what I think you can have.”
With that, Hambly set this goal: averaging 3,000 fans per home match.
“That’s kind of been the number, based on my limited, informal research,” he said.
It’s only been achieved during one season by a UI program now in its 39th year. In 1992, an Illini team that won 32 matches, went 19-1 in the Big Ten to share the conference title and advanced to an NCAA regional final attracted an average of 3,098 fans in 17 home matches.
The closest the program has since come to the 3,000 plateau occurred the following year, when an average of 2,657 fans entered Huff Hall.
In each of the first three years of Hambly’s head coaching tenure, average attendance ranked among the top nine in program history — above 2,000 per match in each case. Last year, fan interest reached its highest level since the early 1990s as Illinois won its first 20 matches, was ranked No. 1 for four weeks and capped a 32-5 season with a runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament. That team attracted three of the program’s top 10 all-time home crowds while averaging 2,475. That figure is the third highest in program history.
In at least two instances last year, fans were turned away when Huff Hall — which seats about 4,000, according to UI assistant ticket manager Allison Myles.
“That was exciting (to see) as a coach,” Hambly said of ticket demand exceeding supply. “Of course, I felt bad for the people that didn’t get the tickets. But I got emails from two people that drove in from Chicago and didn’t get in, and they weren’t upset. They just said, ‘I will not make that mistake again. I will pre-buy tickets.’ That was awesome to hear.”
The Illini haven’t needed to turn away fans yet this season, but the program is off to a strong start at the gate on reaching Hambly’s goal. Although the sample size is small, Illinois is averaging 3,222 for four home dates and has attracted more than 3,000 fans three times.
“I’m hoping it continues,” said Hambly, whose team is ranked No. 21 but, at 8-6, already has one more loss than it did all last season. “I’m hoping the team starts playing the way we feel they can. We feel it’s going in a good direction. It’s not where it needs to be yet, but if it keeps going, hopefully the fans will keep coming.”
While the jury is still out on whether this is the year Hambly’s attendance goal is achieved, the core of fan support — as measured by season ticket sales — clearly has responded to the Illini’s historic run to the NCAA title match last year. In 2011, according to figures from Myles, the program sold 258 season tickets and 572 Go Illini cards, which could be used at any home match for general-admission seating. In essence, 830 season tickets were sold.
This year, that number has jumped more than 58 percent, to about 1,315 season tickets sold. That figure includes about 675 in the reserved-seating area as well as about 640 in general admission — a new category of season tickets being offered after UI officials decided to discontinue the Go Illini card.
As impressive as that increase is, the program still needs a healthy turnout of walk-up ticket purchasers to attain Hambly’s goal of a 3,000 average.
“You’ve got to go one step at a time,” he said.
For a veteran player like Erin Johnson, those steps at the gate are readily apparent. The senior middle blocker recalls that home attendance was more sporadic when she entered the program.
“I definitely think the attendance, just on a regular basis, has increased,” Johnson said. “We always would fill the gym (in the past) when we got big matches, but I think (now), just any given home night, that we have like a full gym. Even the student crowd is huge every single night. It goes up (the stands) to the back of the gym for any home match, whereas when I first got here it was more like (that for) what would be considered the big matches or the Dig Pink matches.”
Clearly, Illini attendance is making strides in the direction Hambly desires. Last season, Illinois ranked 10th in the NCAA in average attendance after finishing 16th in 2010 and 15th in 2009.
The challenge, of course, will be to build on this success — to attract new customers and then retain them — in order to attain Hambly’s goal of at least 3,000 fans for every home match.
He readily concedes Illinois likely will never rival the support that perennial attendance leader Hawaii receives. There, average attendance typically exceeds 6,000 “and they sell tickets for $25, so it’s a whole different animal,” Hambly said.
Likewise, Nebraska currently is in another realm, with no end in sight to its current streak of 171 consecutive sellouts at the 4,030-seat NU Coliseum. But if the Illini attendance arrow continues to point up, Hambly can foresee something special like that happening at Huff Hall, too.
“The ultimate vision is to get to that, but you’ve got to go one step at a time,” he said. “To expect that we could sell out (every match now) is ludicrous. But to expect that we could get to 3,000 consistently, I think, has been a goal that is realistic.
“And we’re getting close to pulling it off.”
Top Illini single-match crowds
ATTENDANCE OPPONENT DATE
1. 7,632 Minnesota* Oct. 16, 2009
2. 4,316 Stanford$ Dec. 11, 1992
3. 4,261 Purdue Oct. 1, 2011
4. 4,211 Ohio State$ Dec. 3, 1992
5. 4,141 Penn State Sept. 24, 2010
6. 4,123 Nebraska$ Dec. 10, 1992
7. 4,050 Ohio State Oct. 18, 1991
7. 4,050 Penn State Nov. 27, 1992
9. 4,021 Michigan State Oct. 15, 2011
10. 3,905 Penn State Nov. 11, 2011
11. 3,770 Iowa State Aug. 31, 2012
T17. 3,269 Iowa State Sept. 1, 2012
19. 3,209 Wisconsin Sept. 23, 2012
NOTE: * At the Assembly Hall; $ NCAA tournament
Top Illini season attendance
AVERAGE YEAR HOME DATES
1. 3,098 1992 17
2. 2,657 1993 14
3. 2,475 2011 17
4. 2,414 1996 13
5. 2,347 1995 14
6. 2,242 1991 14
7. 2,108* 1988 16
8. 2,106 2009 15
9. 2,043 2010 15
10. 1,962 1997 14
NOTE: * At Kenney Gym
2012 NCAA attendance leaders
SCHOOL AVERAGE HOME DATES
1. Hawaii 6,748 11
2. Nebraska 4,490 8
3. Penn State 3,530 7
4. Minnesota 3,420 6
5. Illinois 3,222 4
6. Northern Iowa 2,954 3
7. Wisconsin 2,936 5
8. Florida 2,932 7
9. Louisville 2,717 12
10. Purdue 2,573 8
NOTE: Figures through Sept. 30