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Saunders: Enthusiasm is Back, But That Alone Won’t Fill the Pete

Saunders: Enthusiasm is Back, But That Alone Won’t Fill the Pete

The first five games of the Jeff Capel Era have gone well for Pitt, with the Panthers holding a 5-0 record heading into Wednesday’s game against St. Louis.

Yes, they haven’t really played anyone, but that’s to be expected with a young team early in the season.

But what’s just as clear, is that for as much of a rousing success as Pitt has been on the court, the addition of Capel and some high-flying youngsters aren’t bringing in a huge win at the ticket office.

Pitt has averaged 3,465 fans through the turnstiles at Petersen Events Center, and while that’s up slightly from a year ago, when Pitt averaged 3,314 through the non-conference part of their schedule, it’s still only about 25 percent of capacity.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly the lack of name recognition amongst Pitt’s opponents. Though most have heard of Youngstown State, it’s hardly a school that stirs any strong feelings, though the Penguins did at least bring a few hundred of their own.

I’d venture that the average Pitt fan would struggle to put VMI, Troy, Central Arkansas and North Alabama on a map.

When Pitt’s schedule toughens over the next few weeks, none of that will be happening at the Pete. The Panthers will visit Iowa as part of their league-mandated Big Ten/ACC Challenge, play at West Virginia, Duquesne at PPG Paints Arena and St. Louis at Barclays Center on Wednesday.

The rest of the games at the Pete? Another list of mid-to-low majors with Niagara, Maryland Eastern Shore, New Orleans and Colgate coming to town.

Of course, the phenomenon is nothing new, and is hardly unique to Pittsburgh. Non-conference attendance is falling nationwide while most of the best matchups get played on a neutral floor.

Over the last five seasons, Pitt has played two major-conference opponents at the Pete: West Virginia last year and Purdue in 2015. They also played St. Bonaventure from the Atlantic-10. Every other opponent that has walked out of the visitor’s tunnel has been from a lesser league.

Here’s the list:

Bryant
Buffalo
Cal-Santa Barbara
Central Arkansas (twice)
Colgate
Cornell
Delaware State
Detroit
Eastern Michigan
Eastern Washington
Florida Gulf Coast
Gardner-Webb
High Point
Holy Cross
Kent State
Lehigh
Niagara (twice)
Nebraska-Omaha
New Orleans
North Alabama
McNeese State
Manhattan
Marshall
Maryland-Eastern Shore (twice)
Montana
Morehead State (twice)
Mount St. Mary’s
Oakland
Rice
Samford
St. Joseph’s College (Div. II)
Towson
Troy
Western Carolina
VMI
Yale
Youngstown State

If you’re counting at home, that’s three branch campuses, five directional schools and one Division II college that has since folded. Not the basketball team, the whole college. Some of those are good basketball teams. Some of them (most of them) are bad. But universally, they’ve been a collective thud at the box office.

There are plenty of schools out there that I’m sure Pitt fans would love to see besides West Virginia. Pitt has plenty of history with schools like Cincinnati, UConn, Georgetown, Penn State, Providence, Rutgers, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Temple and Villanova.

Jeff Capel said last week that he wants to continue to schedule Pitt to play in non-conference games in New York perhaps against some old Big East foes. The Panthers have a long tradition of playing New York, it’s an important recruiting area, and it makes a lot of sense to continue to return there year after year.

But at some point, the Panthers are going to have to give the home fans a reason to come out to the Petersen Events Center, too. It doesn’t seem like the usual suspects are getting the job done.

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