On a Saturday night in January at Great Southern Bank Arena, nearly 10,000 fans annually pack the stands and cheer as loud as they can. One of southwest Missouri's great sports traditions, "The Final Countdown" blares before the ball is tipped off at the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions.
It's the area's main event and it feels that way. A pair of star-studded rosters take the floor with the arena's music turned up, the powerful voice of the public address announcer calling the action and some type of fun going on over the scoreboard at seemingly every break in the game. Car Horn Replacement
Once the final horn sounds, the best three days in Ozarks basketball come to an end. Around 12 hours later, the arena's doors are opened again. When they do, the lack of buzz around the concourse comes as a shock. The building that felt so large the night before suddenly feels small and empty.
There's just nothing fun about being there.
Missouri State has a problem as it trends toward its least attended men's basketball season since 1975-76 (not counting the COVID-19-impacted year of 2020-21). While declining attendance at sporting events is a national trend, the environment Missouri State has at its basketball games and various other sporting events hasn't helped create a game-day atmosphere that would make it a desirable place to watch the Bears play.
There is plenty of blame to go around whether it be from those in charge, the product on the court and even a portion of the fans who do attend.
From what I've been told, there was a day when going to the Missouri State game was the thing to do. Fans would line up for hours to get the hottest ticket in town and see the Bears play.
I haven't seen anything like that in my seven-plus years covering the team. If I wasn't getting paid to cover the games, there's a good chance I would have never decided to attend a Missouri State men's basketball game and I can't really blame those who aren't showing up right now.
On a Tuesday night with Missouri State playing one of the worst teams in the league, snow was falling outside and schools were being canceled all across the Ozarks. Still, MSU hosted Illinois Chicago in front of a reported 3,026 fans who decided to brave the cold.
The attendance numbers were inflated by the few hundred MSU student-athletes who were honored at halftime for their academic success during the fall semester. They filled the student section while sitting and watching the men's basketball team struggle against a team they were double-digit favorites against. For many, it was the first game they'd been to all season. For many, it will probably be their last.
With the Bears down 30-29 at halftime, the athletes took the floor and lined up to receive handshakes from MSU President Clif Smart and Athletics Director Kyle Moats. By the time it was over, the athletes walked back to their spots in the bleachers, retrieved their coats and left the arena. Very few saw Chance Moore knock down a clutch 3 in the final minute nor the free throws to put it away — it wasn't as thrilling as it sounds.
There was hardly any reason to stay, outside of school pride, but that was hard to come by during a mediocre performance that still eked out a win. Missouri State's attempt at a theme for the game was "TikTok Night" which featured the annoying music that is repetitive on the social media app and a lame dance between Boomer, Missouri State's mascot, along with Ozark Technical Community College's mascot, Ozzy.
With "The Office Night" in the past and "Harry Potter Night" upcoming, it's almost like a bunch of boomers sat in a room and asked themselves "what the kids are into these days?" then picked a show that aired its final episode a decade ago and a film series that ended in 2011.
Attending a Missouri State basketball game hasn't felt like a cool or trendy thing to do all season.
The music is bad and repetitive from one game to another. There's no event feel when the university is paying a local disc jockey, DJ Platinum, to be there and he's underutilized. He's proven to know how to build on to an atmosphere at the Tournament of Champions — why berate the crowd asking if it wants to sing "YMCA" or "Take Me Home, Country Roads" when he's sitting right there?
It's also starting to become a tradition for the public address announcer to accidentally leave the mic on and shout for the Bears to get the ball across mid-court at critical moments during the game. You also can't forget the introduction video before starting lineups, which features highlights only from the exhibition game before the season.
It all feels small-time when there appears to be a disconnect between those organizing the games, those in attendance and those who don't come to the games. Simply getting a new video board for the arena in 2023-24 isn't going to be enough. Money is going to need to be dedicated to improving the atmosphere and some tough conversations need to be had.
It's clear that the interest in the program has dwindled over the last decade and it can't go without saying that the performance on the court has played a major factor in it.
The Paul Lusk era at Missouri State saw the program go from averaging over 7,000 fans per game to dipping to just above 4,500. While the fall of in-game attendance has been a national trend, it was accelerated at Missouri State by going from a Valley champion to being one that was competing annually to avoid a play-in game.
When the Bears first hired Dana Ford, the attendance spiked back up to 5,150 before dipping under 4,000 the next season. If the season was to end today, the average attendance would be just over 3,000 which would be its worst since 1975-76 outside of COVID-19's lost season.
The basketball hasn't been at Lusk levels under Ford but the inconsistent 2022-23 season hasn't been entertaining enough. Missouri State currently ranks near the bottom of the country in efficiency and tempo and has a roster full of new players, with fans still using programs to try and figure out who's who.
The transfer portal has played its part in the lack of connection fans would feel with the players. The days of having Kyle Weems-type fan favorites stay in the program their entire careers may be gone but that can't be an excuse when others around the league are still finding some success despite star players transferring away.
Missouri State, which started the year with 13 newcomers, has been a team that's hovered around the .500 mark all season and hasn't been consistent enough to consider it a real contender for a league title as of yet. To get the Springfield community excited, a winner threatening to take the Valley title and make its first NCAA Tournament since 1999 would be a must. This team hasn't been it and there hasn't been one for a while.
Ford has said in the past that scheduling a team like Pittsburgh wouldn't do the Bears any good. No, it wouldn't go a long way in boosting the Bears' chances at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament — but neither does a home loss to Purdue Fort Wayne.
Under Ford, there has only been one marquee game that fans have flocked to, which was the home game against BYU last season that brought in 7,006 fans. That's the most fans the Bears had in the stands since their season finale against Drake in Ford's first year (7,894), when the Bears had a shot at winning a share of the conference title, and the most for a non-conference game since Paul Lusk's first year in 2011 when they hosted Oklahoma State (8,601).
There used to be a time when the Bears brought in teams like Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Saint Louis, Tulsa and others, reaching out to a wider net of fans. Teams have to agree to play the Bears, of course, but it can't be ignored that Southern Illinois started a home-and-home with Oklahoma State this year. It's just one example but it's possible.
Getting some names that people recognize and some bigger regional rivals in the arena can do wonders in creating some type of buzz. Having Missouri S&T as a home opener and a game against Central Michigan just isn't cutting it.
I first arrived in Springfield in 2015 and have been told over the years that fans used to pack Hammons Student Center under Charlie Spoonhour and Steve Alford. I've also heard endless anecdotes about the time Cuonzo Martin led the Bears to a 69-64 win over Wichita State in 2011, winning them the league.
It was special, from what I've been told. I've never seen that kind of buzz outside of the Tournament of Champions or the occasional Blue and Gold Tournament championship game.
I've been told about the "Bear Hair" that saw the team's student fan club wear bright wigs and paint their faces. The band allegedly had a cool song that they played upon their arrival and students engaged in various chants. There was a time the home-court advantage was so good that the Hammons Student Center fans called it "Spoon's Temple of Doom."
Now you get a dozen students who want to have that experience and others who would rather sit and look at their phones. To the band's credit, they have a new set list of songs for the first time in a few years and are the most engaged fans at every sporting event they're involved in.
But all tradition feels lost. The only growing traditions that can be seen are frustrated fans in long lines for concessions, whether it be at basketball or football games, and watching teams that ultimately underachieve.
The diehards who continue to support the Bears don't go without some blame — although it's not their responsibility to put butts in seats. The lack of engagement by most of those in the crowd helps make it a boring place to watch a game and could discourage casual fans from returning.
Most fans at the games are sitting down for 99% of the game and are only standing up and making noise when embarrassingly told to do so by the public address announcer. No, Missouri State will never be Allen Fieldhouse or Cameron Indoor Stadium with fans on their feet cheering from start to finish but the commitment to that atmosphere over the years has made those places bucket list spots every sports fan would want to experience a game.
Since starting a discussion about attendance on social media, I've been told multiple stories of how some fans in the crowd will voice their frustration if others stand up and cheer during critical moments.
These are little things that the majority of those in attendance are in control of. To Missouri State's credit, it has tried to be creative to get more fans to interact in recent years — whether it be with an in-game host, video board graphics, etc. It's a decision by the people who are there to get up and make noise or sit, watch and sometimes complain when those around them are trying to make it a more fun place to be. Unfortunately, there are too many of the latter.
Yes, many basketball programs are suffering the same fate. College students at various places may not be as interested in campus events as they were in the past, with streaming and other things to do among the excuses.
Attendance in 2021-22 was down from 2019-20 (the NCAA didn't calculate official totals for the 2020-21 year that was impacted by the pandemic). That followed a 2019-20 season that saw the first increase in the national average attendance since the 2006-07 season. It's gone from an average of 5,548 fans per Division I game in 2006-07 to 4,313 in 2021-22.
The drop was gradual over the 13-year span and was expedited by the pandemic. Moats, MSU's athletics director, has said that COVID-19 and the pandemic are not excuses that he will make for the problems at Missouri State.
Missouri State is currently ranked eighth in the MVC in average home attendance and is behind schools such as Evansville and Illinois State — two teams that, despite getting a new head coach bump, are a combined 12-33 and have been dreadful to watch.
New league member Murray State is at the top of the list as it has a new head coach following an NCAA Tournament appearance. It's followed by Evansville and then Southern Illinois which has been creative in its approach this season, creating a fun atmosphere for those in attendance to go along with winning basketball. All three schools average nearly 1,400 more fans than Missouri State per night.
Southern Illinois has been an excellent example of how to do things right as it's brought in large crowds, young and old, on a nightly basis since conference play began. It's been creative in its different promotions, arranging a New Year's Day "Saluki Bash" that brought in 7,119 on a holiday for a critical win and recently had 6,507 fans in attendance on a Tuesday night with a filled-up student section and 680 area students involved with FFA when there was a chance of snow and resulting school cancellations the next day.
On those same days, Missouri State brought in crowds of 2,836 and 3,026.
Men's basketball will get the most attention right now because it's in season and is supposed to be the athletics department's money-maker, but other sports shouldn't be ignored either.
Women's basketball suffers a lot of the same game day problems that are very similar to the men's program, although its fanbase doesn't require the type of big-event atmosphere as a men's game to fill seats. It's a proud fanbase dating back to the 1992 Final Four run, followed by the Jackie Stiles-led one in 2001, but the need for younger fans is here.
The program's recent stretch of success peaked with an average crowd of 2,847 when Amaka Agugua-Hamilton's first team — coming off Kellie Harper's final season that ended in the Sweet 16 — was nationally ranked and bound for an NCAA Tournament before it was canceled. That was still down from an average of 3,400 fans who attended games as recently as 2015-16.
In Beth Cunningham's first season, she wasn't handed an NCAA Tournament-ready roster and the young team has had some ups and downs. Attendance-wise, Lady Bears games are currently averaging exactly 2,000 fans per game — which would be the lowest since 1989-90.
Football has had its problems over the years with the product on the field being abysmal but it's night and day better now than what it had been. There is momentum in the program even following the departure of Bobby Petrino and the promotion of defensive coordinator Ryan Beard.
Fans still aren't showing up, with most pointing the finger at the student section. Missouri State has done a good job at trying to experiment with different days for the games and Thursday nights seem to be a favorite outside of the typical homecoming and family weekend games. Saturday afternoons take a hit whether it be from students being up in the wee hours of the morning to start drinking before the tailgate and then having no desire to sit in the hot sun, having no interest or wanting to watch bigger FBS-level games on television.
The scoreboard will be replaced in 2023 to the delight of everyone who has seen it. It was a problem that a handful of high schools, including Nixa and Joplin, had screens of better quality and it should mean we have reliable lights that can show fans the score and how much time there was in the game — like you would expect from Pop Warner games.
Including the scoreboard, everything else as far as in-stadium needs to be redone. The same music has been playing over the old speakers for the seven years I've covered the games and there are way too many silent moments during breaks in the action. While Arkansas is at a different level as far as resources and fanbase, the Razorbacks' atmosphere is made so much better because it has up-to-date, engaging music at all times. Notes should be taken from the places that do things right.
There needs to be a time when those at Missouri State look themselves in the mirror before this problem gets — somehow — worse than it already is. It's not all about wins and losses but also creating an environment that keeps people showing up for an event that they can't bear to miss.
The time to make that change is now, because what they are doing simply isn't working.
Soft Wiper Blade Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He's also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.