Rumors continue to swirl about Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg leaving for the thrills and challenges of the NBA, specifically the Chicago Bulls. Fans are seemingly caught in an endless loop of checking message boards, Twitter and media reports looking for a shred of evidence Fred could stay at his alma mater, while internally trying to come to terms with the idea he won't. Those outside the state's borders may think the whole thing is pretty silly, an announcement will happen when it happens and then Iowa State can either regroup or move on. But it's just not that simple. To say Fred Hoiberg means a lot to Iowa State Cyclone fans would be greatly understated, Fred Hoiberg is Iowa State Basketball. He's the local high school & college hero, the cherished prodigal son, the maestro of "Hoiball" and the proclaimed savior of Hilton Magic. So you'll have to excuse ISU fans, if they seem a little preoccupied.
Yesterday's article by WRNL author CylentButDeadly discussed the program continuing onward in a post-Hoiberg era and it stirred some questions and led me to research attendance figures during the "modern era" of basketball.
[Note: I'm defining the "modern era" as "any year I could find official-ish looking statistics on the internet", so pretend everything that happened before the Larry Nance coached 1977-78 Cyclones hit the court to be ancient unrecorded history.]
What I found was surprising. I had assumed that attendance, the most obvious measure of fan engagement in a program, roughly equaled wins. Or more simply, if a coach wins it really doesn't matter what his name is, the fans will come.
Below is a chart of the attendance averages for the last 38 seasons as well as the NCAA rank of that figure. Note that the 2015 official NCAA rankings have not been published, so I estimated this years 20th rank based off of the 2014 list.
Even before I could glance at the Hoiberg era, the Johnny Orr one caught my attention. Orr is widely credited with breathing life into an flailing Cyclones program and creating the environment and atmosphere we all know as "Hilton Magic" - still the dramatic swing from the 1982-83 season to 1983-84 is stunning. That season saw a 30% rise in attendance a gain of almost 4,000 average fans per game! It would be almost a decade before an Orr led team saw a season average under 12,300 fans.
In comparison, 12 years of Tim Floyd, Larry Eustachy and Wayne Morgan COMBINED only crossed that attendance figure once. Johnny Orr is a giant in Cyclone basketball and it's easy to see why.
Speaking of Wayne Morgan, he surprisingly never saw a dip in attendance in three seasons and this momentum appears to have primed Greg McDermott for a well attended first couple of seasons. If you're a conspiracy theorist, I'll throw you a bone and point out that the NCAA claims we had almost 1,000 more fans per game in Morgan's first season than Iowa State's own statistics show ... read into that what you will.
My personal Iowa State fandom began during Orr's last season - so it's strange to me to see the downward trend during Floyd's tenure which saw tournament berths in 3 out of 4 seasons. Dedric Willoughby and Kelvin Cato apparently didn't see many packed houses. I looked for any obvious economic reasons for this, but the Dow was steady, though unremarkable during that time period. It seems Hoiberg-like results on the court didn't bring Floyd the butts in the seats we're currently experiencing. It's possible that Floyd's style of a methodical offense and tight defense was an equally effective, but much less palatable product to the average basketball fan.
Which leads me to The Mayor himself. Fred's section of the chart, like his career path, is a straight line to the top. 2015 was the highest average attendance in Iowa State program history. In fact, based on that average of 14,300 fans, only about 1,500 seats TOTAL went unsold over the course of the entire 17 game home schedule. To trend higher, ISU virtually has to sellout every game on the schedule next season - and in the slim chance that Fred returns, they just might. Fred's last two seasons rank in the top three all-time and his average of 13,400 fans is more than 1,000 higher than any other coach.
But it's all about wins right? Below the chart is tweaked to replace NCAA attendance rank with season wins.
Kind of. Wins and attendance hold fairly true for Nance and Hoiberg. Orr was able to keep impressively high numbers almost without regard to wins, which may have a lot to do with his "down" years only coming one at a time, never letting fans gauge a downward trend. I have no idea what fans were thinking during the Morgan & McDermott eras - whoever was on the ISU marketing staff those seven years deserves a raise. Wins dropped off after Morgan's first season and never recovered, yet Cyclone fans kept right on coming. Gluttons for punishment, I guess.
So what's that all worth? More paying customers means more revenue, but how much more? Below is a listing of roughly how much Fred's success is worth in per season gate take versus the other coaches on the chart. This assumes 17 home games at $25 a non-con ticket & $35 per conference game, so it should be a fairly conservative estimate. It also compares average attendance of Hoiberg's five seasons as compared to a similar tenure of the other coaches.
Assuming I didn't screw up the math, a Fred Hoiberg season is good for about a half million more in gate revenue than a McDermott or Orr season if they were to occur today. He's worth more than three quarters of a million more than Floyd, and over a million more for the rest of the names on the list. Over the course of an average five year period, Hoiberg comes out millions ahead of everyone. This of course excludes such things as national exposure, name recognition and other gains made off of a popular coach like Hoiberg. So what can we expect from a new coach? Well, we know he won't be Fred Hoiberg, so a drop off seems really likely. If not next season with a stacked roster, then almost assuredly in later ones as regression laws apply. This is no knock on the new coach, it's simply the fact that Hoiberg has done a superb job of filling Hilton, and it's probably unreasonable to believe someone else will improve on the best support in the history of the program.
Do you have any other data, you ask?
Actually yes, though I'm not sure how to tie it in or if it's redundant, but I also have the winning percentages of the coaches listed above, the percentage of paid for seats during their tenure and their total NCAA Tourney appearances. Is that important? I'm not certain. McDermott seemed to ride on other's coattails to some attendance success while whiffing on actual on-court success. Tim Floyd had a couple of the very good seasons on the court that apparently few people saw in person. Regardless, here's the data for you to chew on nervously as you pine for more Fred Hoiberg.
Fred Hoiberg: Winning Percentage: 68%, How full was Hilton: 93%, NCAA berths: 4/5
Greg McDermott: Winning Percentage: 47%, How full was Hilton: 87%, NCAA berths: 0/4
Wayne Morgan: Winning Percentage: 59%, How full was Hilton: 77%, NCAA berths: 1/3
Larry Eustachy: Winning Percentage: 63%, How full was Hilton: 79%, NCAA berths: 2/5
Tim Floyd: Winning Percentage: 63%, How full was Hilton: 83%, NCAA berths: 3/4
Johnny Orr: Winning Percentage: 52%, How full was Hilton: 86%, NCAA berths: 6/14
Lynn Nance: Winning Percentage: 41%, How full was Hilton: 55%, NCAA berths: 0/4
The takeaway, besides the baffling McDermott support, may just be that Fred Hoiberg is again at the top of a lot of successful names in modern ISU basketball - he wins more than two thirds of his games, fills Hilton to the gills and takes his teams to the NCAA Tournament with clock-like regularity.
Losing Fred Hoiberg is going to hurt. It's going to hurt the players, the fans, the program and in all likelihood future success.
So we're left with where we started:
Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.