Basketball attendance up after years of decline

Last year, basketball attendance declined at Calvin. With two new coaches leading the men’s and women’s programs, that trend is beginning to change.

Calvin’s attendance numbers for both men’s and women’s basketball games declined from the 16-17 season to the 18-19 season. This mirrors a national trend that saw NCAA Division I attendance hit a 20-year low in 2017. Last year, Calvin’s men’s and women’s basketball teams averaged only 832 and 253 fans respectively. This year, the men average 131 more fans at 993. The women average 30 fewer at 223, but overall the Knights average 100 more fans a game than last year. These stats can be found at

Women’s head coach Mark Christner said, “I know that as we build this program and compete for a conference championship, people like a winner.” Men’s head coach Bill Sall echoed that idea, saying, “It helps to have a competitive product. That’s always a big one, and that’s our job.” 

Both programs are producing just that. Women’s basketball was 12-14 last year, while this year they stand at 15-9 with one game to play. On the men’s side, the Knights have improved from 14-13 last year to 14-9 so far this year.

Rival Hope College has consistently bested Calvin in attendance the last few years. The last two years, both of Hope’s teams drew more fans per game than both of Calvin’s teams. This year, per Hope’s athletic website, Hope’s attendance at men’s games has increased by only seven fans per game, and their attendance at women’s games has decreased despite the Hope women standing at a perfect 23-0. While Calvin still trails in attendance by a good margin in both sports, the gaps are shrinking.

Though the Calvin women’s basketball attendance average is down, there have been bright spots. “When we played Albion here on January 22, we had a good number of student-athletes and a good student group, and that resulted in a good atmosphere,” Christner said about a crowd of 329. Their season high came against Hope with 489 attendees at the Van Noord Arena.

On the men’s side, the bounce back in attendance refreshes players and coaches alike. “I think (attendance) is getting better, and I think we need to continue to do a good job of promoting it,” Sall said. The Calvin-Hope game brought in over 3,000 people, easily the highest attendance of the season for Calvin. Saturday home games against Kalamazoo and Alma each brought in around 1,500 people, also boosting Calvin’s season average. Sall still looks for consistency. “The goal has got to be back to what we used to have, right?” Sall said. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t be number one or two in Division III attendance.”

Derrick DeVries is having a historic senior season for the men’s basketball program, moving up several Calvin record lists. Having been in the program for four years, seeing the attendance increase is a new sight for him. “I think there is a new interest among alumni with the new coaching,” DeVries said, referencing Sall’s first season as Calvin head coach. “I also think that winning more games and playing at a fun pace brings people out.”

Christner mentioned how the style of play could be instrumental in an attendance rebound for the women’s program. “I think that it is important to get up and down the floor, hit some shots, not turn it over, things like that,” he said.

Looking to the future, Calvin is taking steps to continue to restore great atmospheres and full bleachers to Calvin basketball games. One of those steps occurs inside the programs themselves. “It starts with our presence as basketball players off the court and in the classroom. When you got high-quality people who are likeable, enjoyable, and social with all students, a lot of students will want to come watch,” sophomore guard Jack Cahalane said.

After reading Chimes’ article on declining attendance last year, juniors Sam Demey and Nathan Pohl decided to write a marketing report for Calvin’s sports teams. Athletic director Jim Timmer Jr. noticed the interest, and he brought them in to build the Calvin Gameday program. “We noticed that the game day atmosphere you see at bigger schools was just not evident here,” Demey said, “so our main goal is getting students to know when games are and doing all we can to get them out there.” 

The Gameday crew is primarily concerned with promotion and entertainment. “We saw the largest crowds we’ve ever had this year at soccer homecoming and MidKnight madness, so I definitely think we are headed in the right direction,” Pohl said. Calvin Gameday can be found on Instagram @calvin_gameday. Players have noticed Gameday’s effect as well. “Shoutout to Calvin GameDay,” DeVries said. “They’re doing a great job promoting our games, and I think that helps attendance a lot.”

The new basketball coaching staffs and the growing number of wins bring hope to a situation that looked dire last year. “I know that there is an interest, we just have to try to kindle it a little better,” Sall said.