After only five years in its on-campus Carrier Dome, Syracuse University's basketball team is averaging more spectators per game (25,720) than any other college or professional squad.
"It blows our mind," Athletic Director Jake Crouthamel said today of the Orangemen's box-office success in the $28 million multipurpose facility, which has a 20,000-seat season ticket base in basketball.
The collegiate record for average attendance is 23,785, set at Kentucky's Rupp Arena in 1982-83.
There hasn't been a ticket on sale since a week ago Wednesday for Saturday's nationally televised Big East Conference game against top-ranked St. John's (WDVM-TV-9 at 1:30 p.m.).
It will be the fourth crowd of more than 30,000 in the Dome this season, but not the largest. Villanova drew a standing-room-only crowd of 32,520 -- an NCAA on-campus record -- for a game that was blacked out locally. There was a heavy walkup sale, and Crouthamel said Syracuse officials decided it would be poor public relations to turn away people who had waited in line.
The average crowd for Big East games is 28,085.
So, it comes as somewhat of a shock when Crouthamel says, "We literally made the decision to play basketball in the Dome as an afterthought, certainly after construction had begun."
As Crouthamel explained, "When we moved in, we had a very good situation here in Manley: 9,522 (seats), one of the really good basketball arenas in the country, and we were turning them away in droves . . . . We thought we were bullish in our projections that we'd average 12,000-14,000 . . . . The first year, we averaged 16,086."
Today, basketball is a major reason Crouthamel is able to balance a $5.6 million athletic department budget. The university does not discuss bottom-line numbers in the Dome, partly because of litigation by the City of Syracuse to collect more than $3 million in property taxes over three years.
But sources say the average gross gate in the Dome this season will be about $200,000. That means revenues for 17 dates will be about $3.4 million. One source says Syracuse's net profit on gate receipts will be about 60 percent, or slightly more than $2 million.
Dome manager Tom Benzel declines to discuss the finances of the facility, which is expected to play host to about 60 events this year. A month ago, two Bruce Springsteen concerts drew sellouts of 39,000, not bad for a city with a population listed at 170,105 and a three-county population of 642,971, according to the 1980 census.
Certainly, Syracuse's basketball tradition (14 straight postseason tournament appearances) has a lot to do with the Dome's success. But there has to be a reason a Syracuse fan will come to the Carrier Dome and sit perhaps 80 yards from the game when he could watch it on television on most occasions.
"It's really a happening," Crouthamel said.
Syracuse has taken the tailgate party inside. It's a festive crowd that comes early to buy beer, food and novelties, especially in The Backcourt, the area behind the curtain that divides the Dome for basketball. Students call this area "The Beer Garden."
"The biggest bar in New York State" is how concessions manager Harold Shinherr describes it. But Benzel says that Dome officials have discovered that by selling beer and banning the portable bars of fans, crowd control is easier.
On Saturday, while waiting for the tipoff, fans will be able to watch on a 16- by 20-foot screen the syndicated Big East telecast of Georgetown and Connecticut.
For those who don't want that much hoops, there always is a band on the stand next to the giant screen. On Saturday, there will be two acoustic guitar players. "Mellow music for an early game," explained Rick Goodrich, the Dome's production manager.
In games involving area teams, second-ranked Georgetown (24-2) will be at the Hartford Civic Center for a high noon shootout with Connecticut, Army will visit Annapolis for a 3:30 game against Navy, George Washington will play visiting Atlantic 10 rival St. Bonaventure in its final home game at 7:30, and George Mason's Carlos Yates needs 12 points at William and Mary (7:30 p.m.) to replace Georgetown's Eric Floyd (2,304) as the Washington area's all-time leading scorer.