CHAMPAIGN — One of the perks of attending an Illinois women’s basketball home game this season is access to some of the best seats in the house. Every fan at each of the Illini’s first nine home games has been seated in A section — the 3,011-seat area closest to the floor at the Assembly Hall.
That could change today in the UI’s fifth Pack the Hall event. The 3,416-seat B section might need to be opened to fans for the first time this season.
“I’m hoping for five (thousand fans),” first-year Illini coach Matt Bollant said. “Maybe that’s optimistic, but I don’t see why not.”
There’s reason for Bollant’s positive thinking, and it goes beyond the fact that the price is right — admission is free. His Illini won five of their last seven games, beating two Top 25 teams in the process (then-No. 6 Georgia, then-No. 24 Ohio State).
“I expect a really big crowd on Sunday,” Bollant said. “You beat two of three ranked teams in the country. ... To end a 31-game winning streak is pretty special and ought to get people excited.”
Average home attendance during seven of the past eight seasons has been under 2,000, falling to 1,070 last season. That was the program’s lowest figure in 17 years and a far cry from the crowds the program drew from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s; (in one six-season stretch, the average attendance was as high as 7,407 and never lower than 3,340).
Understandably, there’s been a hangover effect at the Assembly Hall turnstiles. This season, the Illini are averaging 1,536 fans — second lowest among Big Ten teams — and have yet to break the 2,000 threshold.
At 9-6, Illinois is within two of matching its 2011-12 win total and has tied its victory figure for 2010-11. In their three most recent home dates, the Illini attracted their two largest crowds of the season. Notably, those occurred while UI students were on winter break.
When Bollant interviewed for the UI coaching position, attendance wasn’t Topic A for Illini athletic director Mike Thomas, but it was discussed. Bollant had a response.
“They asked me what would you do to get attendance (up), and I said right away, number one, you’ve got to have a great product,” he said.
“You’ve got to have something people enjoy coming out (to see).
“And then two, you’ve got to be in the community. And I said I will be in the community as much as any coach you’ve ever had and I’ll speak anywhere. ... Our whole staff, our assistants, will do that.”
Bollant said this week he had spoken to approximately 20 groups — “to meet people and invite them to our games” — since being hired.
At Wisconsin-Green Bay, home attendance increased under Bollant’s watch (see box above), including a school-record 2,712 in 2011-12. The only three sellouts in program history occurred during his tenure.
He’s confident a similar leap will occur at Illinois.
“I feel good about it,” he said. “I saw fans (Thursday) night and they thought, ‘Well, you’re probably disappointed a little bit,’ because they know what I came from. But we’re expecting this to grow. The style of play is really exciting and we play really hard and aggressively, so we’re expecting this community to grab hold and come watch us play.
“And the one thing I like, the people care here. They care about women’s basketball. ... Now that we’re putting a good product on the floor, people are going to come and they’re going to be excited.”
Today should be a good measure of that.