While the biggest of the NCAA Division I basketball conferences struggled at the gate this year, at least one mid-major league had no trouble luring fans to its games.
The Colonial Athletic Association, a 12-school league based in Virginia whose membership spreads from Boston to Atlanta, saw average attendance rise for both conference and non-conference games. League games drew an average of 3,660 this year, up more than 200 fans per game from last year’s average of 3,458. The overall average attendance, meanwhile, jumped to 3,741 from 3,660 a year ago.
Nine schools drew more fans to league games than a year ago while six had higher overall attendance. Old Dominion, which finished second in the league in the regular season, had five sellouts in its 16 home games and finished with its highest average attendance ever (7,745, an increase of almost 800 from last year). Top-seeded George Mason had two sellouts, as did third-seeded Hofstra, whose sellouts were its first since 2006-07. And the three schools that drew fewer fans to league games than a year ago (Delaware, Georgia State and William & Mary) finished a combined 18 games under .500 in CAA play.
The CAA is expected to send both George Mason and Old Dominion to the NCAA Tournament later this month — and a third team, if either one of those schools does not win the automatic bid during the league tournament, which starts today, Friday, March 4 and goes through Monday, March 7. And, while the league garnered national headlines in 2006 when George Mason reached the Final Four, it is, like most mid-major conferences, a league that usually only sends its tournament champion to March Madness. The CAA has received multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament just three times since it was founded in 1982-83.
So, regular season games in the CAA and other mid-major leagues carry much more weight than those in the “big six” conferences, who accounted for 26 of the 34 at-large bids in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. CAA regular season games have an extra layer of urgency, as well, because the top four teams in the league earn a first-round bye. Since the league expanded prior to the 2001-02 season, no team that has played in the first round has won the championship.
The CAA also benefits from several rivalries between its Virginia-based schools. For instance, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth — schools separated by less than 90 miles — play each other twice per year. Both games have sold out in each of the past six seasons.