GRIZ GRIT: Is UM Simply a Football School?

By Beacon Staff

Returning from a robust and successful outing at UCLA gave me a chance to consider, since all the speculation surfaced about University of Montana’s move to the Football Bowl Subdivision, just how robust Big Sky basketball is.

Now, I think we can all agree if there was a secondary level of Division-I hoops, like there is with football, many Big Sky Conference teams, surely including Montana, would have dominated that division over the years.

And there are those I have encountered who still don’t realize or understand that the Football Championship Subdivision is still Division-I and all the other league teams compete at the highest level in all sports but football.

But for the sake of analysis, I just want to focus on men’s basketball.

League teams have made a recent concerted attempt to upgrade their basketball schedules, partially because the higher level of competition has proven to more readily prepare a squad for the rigors of the conference. It’s also because there has been previous speculation that, given the Big Sky’s ranking near the bottom of D-I conferences, there is a chance the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament was in danger of being rescinded.

I don’t really see that as a possibility since the NCAA gave a long look at expanding to a 96-team field last summer. But when you consider the league’s current ranking of 26 out of 33 leagues, I suppose it’s possible.

Even with a seven-game winning streak and winners of seven of their last nine games, Northern Arizona is the top BSC team, standing at 124. Montana, even after the UCLA win, is fifth in the league and stands at 177 overall.

Idaho State, which has been required to spend much of the non-conference schedule filling the school’s coffers the last few years by playing money games, has the best strength of schedule at 41, followed by Eastern Washington at 54.

The Grizzlies again are fifth on the league chart and 173rd overall.

Now I don’t profess to be able to put any of those numbers in perspective, but I do understand one number – attendance at Big Sky Conference games continues to decrease.

As usual, Weber State leads the league after a pair of home games in which they averaged 3,919. The Grizzlies are the second most-watched team in the league, but with an average of 1,000 fewer people for the first four home games.

And I know those are not “cheeks in the seats” numbers. They are based on season ticket totals added to walk-ups.

That just fewer than 12,000 people attended Montana’s first four home games is, in itself, alarming. But what is more concerning is the continued decline seems to either be unrecognized or not a concern, since the usual promotional avenue is to let people know there is a game, give away a few tickets on the radio and expect people to attend.

Then the men’s team, for example, is expected to schedule so called “money games” like UCLA to augment the budget, instead of trying to figure out how to fill about 3,000 empty Adams Field House seats the year after they won the league tournament and came close to advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Granted, the meager crowd against the University of Great Falls probably had to do with the quality of the opponent, but don’t you think after beating UCLA this team deserved fans attending to show their appreciation?

You could argue that attendance in the entire league has declined, but being a half-glass-full guy, so what? That doesn’t mean the Grizzlies have to play in front of a Sacramento State-type crowd.

Is it because basketball is so overexposed because of television? It sure isn’t too expensive to attend (sometimes just $6 general admission).

I guess maybe UM indeed has become just a football school.

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