When USC's basketball team soared to the top of the Pacific 10 Conference this season, the wire-service pollsters were about as unimpressed as the student body.
Both maintained long-standing traditions of ignoring the Trojans. Usually, the thing about apathy is that nobody cares. But that isn't the case here. There have been three studies of the phenomenon over the last nine years, two of them exhaustive. The problem has been studied to death.
One of two done by USC marketing students concluded that "the problem of low attendance appears to be a chronic disease."
The Trojans sold about 35,000 football season tickets last season but only 1,379 for basketball. Home attendance was averaging 4,887 through 13 games. According to the USC ticket office, the average student attendance was 600, from a full-time undergraduate enrollment of nearly 14,000.
Clearly, winning isn't everything.
Another study was requested by Coach Stan Morrison and done a year ago by an 18-member ad hoc committee of business leaders, most of them alumni. It concluded that the university needed an upbeat theme--"USC basketball: The place to be!"--and one person to coordinate promotion and supervision of the men's and women's programs. But the woman recommended for the job left the school to sell real estate late last year.
The problem may not be one of apathy as much as attitude.
A male senior surveyed in 1982 could have been speaking in any era when he said: "It (a USC basketball game) is not the place to be."
Among the reasons cited:
--USC is a football school.
--Basketball lacks a winning tradition.
--There is no on-campus arena, and students perceive the adjacent Sports Arena area as unsafe or too far away.
--USC is a party school but, unlike football, there is no party atmosphere surrounding basketball.
--The program has not been properly promoted or publicized.
--There are conflicts between the athletic department and the ticket office that upset the seating plan.
--UCLA, the crosstown rival, has always been better in basketball, anyway.
When USC played a mediocre Stanford team for first place Jan. 28, only 3,773 showed up.
There were 13,640 for the UCLA game Feb. 1, but most were alumni and outside fans, including 2,000 from UCLA. Only 1,900 were students.
The student attendance figures are remarkable because football and basketball, as well as minor sports, campus lectures and concerts, are included in the $43.50 activity book available to all students and their spouses. That means that most of the 8,513 who bought activity books this school year probably went to the football games but not to the basketball games, even though it wouldn't have cost them any more--except for the UCLA game, which costs students $2 in a lottery plan.
After defeating UCLA in double overtime and Oregon State, Washington and Washington State on the road during a nine-day roll, the Trojans returned home Thursday night to a crowd of 4,480, only 750 of whom were students. That left 11,029 empty seats in the 15,509-seat Sports Arena.
Shown the attendance figure after an explosive 76-60 win over Arizona State, sophomore forward Derrick Dowell was stunned.
"Oh, wow, that's pitiful," he said.
Saturday afternoon, the Trojans drew a crowd of 7,223 at the Sports Arena in a 60-55 loss to Arizona.
The Trojans' record-attendance average of 7,403 in 1971 coincided with their best season, when they were 24-2 under Coach Bob Boyd and ranked No. 2 in the country. Of course, the two losses were to UCLA, which went undefeated.
In six seasons under Morrison, the crosstown series is almost even--6-5, UCLA--and the Bruins' stock has dropped from the John Wooden era while USC and other Pac-10 teams have become title contenders. But the shift hasn't been reflected in student support.
Morrison said recently: "When I came here, they said all I needed to do was beat UCLA. They lied."
Craig Fertig, a former Trojan quarterback, said: "One of the problems may be that they haven't won a (basketball) title here since I was a sophomore (in 1961)."
Fluctuating attendance figures from 1970 indicate that winning helps, but not a lot. Neither, apparently, would an on-campus arena. The three surveys agree that it would be foolish to build an arena on speculation.
The ad hoc committee, chaired by Terry Taft, class of '53 and now a vice president at Coldwell Banker real estate, reported last year: "If an on-campus arena was created today for the purpose of drawing students to the games, it would sit as empty of students as the Sports Arena these last seasons. They don't attend because it isn't any fun to attend."
A female junior interviewed in 1982 for a report by Taft's son, marketing student Tracy Taft, said she preferred football games to basketball games because of the "social aspects . . . scamming, drinking, being with my friends."
During the winter, those activities go on in student hangouts--the 901 Club at the end of the blue line running through Fraternity-Sorority Row, or the 32nd Street Cafe.
There was an attempt this season to move that ambiance to the Sports Arena. A banner hangs over the entrance nearest the campus, marking it as The Gates of Troy. Downstairs, on the arena level, is the Trojan Hoop, furnished with stools, tables and a juke box. There are sandwiches and beer for sale, and sawdust on the floor.
Fifteen minutes before tipoff Thursday night, there were about 20 students there, and half of the concession stand was closed for lack of trade.
The Trojan Hoop, recommended by the ad hoc committee, was a special project of Jayne Hancock, formerly administrative assistant to the athletic director.
"We had a lot of student input on that committee," she said. "when it came down to it, Jayne Hancock was there putting up walls, putting in the juke box, and the kids still weren't showing up."
More successful has been the nearby Trojan Court, which is really the Clipper Club, a gathering place created by the pro basketball Clippers and borrowed by the school. Amid artificial turf, planters and white lattice-work walls, members and guests dine on buffet meals and drink at a cash bar. It seems to do good business.
Hancock, the committee's choice to oversee the basketball programs, now works for a real estate company.
"There were a lot of reasons (to resign)," she said. "Career growth, financial growth. It was a tough decision to make."
But she didn't cut her ties completely. She still is the color commentator for radio broadcasts of the women's games, and organized inner-city clinics for fifth- and sixth-grade girls featuring women's Coach Linda Sharp and All-American Cheryl Miller.
The clinics, sponsored by Transamerica-Occidental at a cost of $12,000, are an attempt to reach out to the community.
"Not only have we helped the kids in the community, but we've brought a company with a lot of employees into it," Hancock said. "And you should have seen the kids with Cheryl Miller. They're Trojans for life."
But that doesn't reach the present-day USC students, who won't even be Trojans for a couple of hours.
Hancock said: "The sports dollar is very competitive in Los Angeles, and then at USC to add the excuses people use not to come . . . one consistent excuse is security. They don't like to go south of the campus.
"But if Prince were appearing at the 901, they'd walk there at night--through crocodiles."
John Lammers, a junior accounting major from Des Moines, Iowa, is president of the Inter-Fraternity Council. He said indifference to the basketball team is not the reason for staying away.
"There were four or five of us studying at my house and listening to the radio when they beat Oregon State. When they scored that last basket (Larry Friend's 18-foot shot) there was a whole lot of yelling.
"It's just being over in the Sports Arena, and at night," Lammers said. "From the Row, it's a 20-minute walk."
But Lammers also noted: "At home (in Iowa), you can't buy a ticket to a basketball game. They're all sold out."
Mike Singer, president of the Student Senate, said: "We, as a student government, need to do more. We're working on some changes in our structure that will better enable us to promote spirit on the campus.
"Part of the problem is the Sports Arena. It's not in the safest (area). It's not extremely accessible in terms of walking distance. It's not a home court. It's not cardinal and gold, and many times SC can't play there because of an ice show or something."
Disney On Ice forced USC to play two games at Cal State Dominguez Hills in January. For the game against Washington, 4,127 was a crowd, jammed into the small gymnasium. For Washington State, there was still room left after 2,963 were seated.
The Trojans are scheduled to return to Dominguez Hills to close the conference season against defending co-champion Oregon State March 9 but may work out an arrangement with the L.A. City high schools, which have their playoffs booked in the Sports Arena on that date.
Glenn Mon, assistant general manager of the Coliseum Commission, said: "The problem is that they schedule their basketball games so late. USC has a priority on dates over the Clippers, but that doesn't mean we can wait until October to finalize dates for a season that starts in November. The conference ignores the fact that USC has a special circumstance."
The Trojans are the only Pac-10 team without a campus arena. They play in the conference's largest arena before the conference's smallest crowds.
The rental fee is a flat $4,000, plus 10% for exceptionally large crowds, which is seldom a problem. The procedure has been for USC to get the schedule from the conference, then take it to the Sports Arena to see if it fits. This season, there were three dates that didn't.
Athletic Director Mike McGee said: "We're going to take a different tack. We're going to nail down dates (earlier) and take them to the conference and ask them to work with us."
Pac-10 Commissioner Tom Hansen said: "We'll sure try to accommodate them because they have the most difficult scheduling situation."
Mon said: "SC is a very valuable tenant. The history of SC and the Coliseum goes back 60 years. We'd love to sit down and work out a three-year schedule (for basketball).
"We have a contract with Disney On Ice for five years. We can look and see when SC's football team will play in the Coliseum through 1987. I don't know why they can't do that in basketball."
McGee said, however: "I don't think there's any way to get the conference to give you (basketball) dates three years hence."
He said that in basketball there is "constant jockeying around for television to put the conference in position for the best exposure."
There once were thoughts of USC buying the Sports Arena. Last year, before the Clippers moved here from San Diego, the Coliseum Commission requested proposals from potential outside operators. USC submitted one, but all were rejected. Now the situation has changed.
"The Sports Arena is running in the black now," Mon said.
Last week, USC's board of trustees approved plans for a $12.3-million student recreation center on campus, killing notions that a basketball arena would be part of it.
McGee, however, held out hope for "what can be done to make the Sports Arena a superior facility for us. We are going to solve that problem."
He would like to create a Trojan atmosphere there.
Mon said: "We've always been willing to entertain suggestions from our tenants to have it more suitable for their events."
Last year, USC requested that the Sports Arena beef up its security for students walking to the games from the campus or the Row.
Kelly Carter, a journalism student who has written stories on the problem, said: "A lot of students don't have cars, and they don't like to walk across there at night."
So the arena hired 10 yellow-jacketed security people and spaced them 50 yards apart, providing a cordon from the southeast corner of the campus at Exposition Boulevard along Figueroa to the arena. It hasn't made much difference.
Dr. Jerald Jellison has been a professor of psychology at USC for 14 years. In that time, he said, he has been to one basketball game. But he has gotten to know the student mentality, and the arena is not the issue, he said.
"The Sports Arena is only, what, 50 yards farther than the Coliseum, so that doesn't hold up too well," he said.
"We all like things where success is a part of it, and since winning at football has such a history of success, people like it. We like to go to things where we're going to come out feeling good."
Jellison said a party atmosphere isn't an issue, either. First, a team must build a following, he said. Then it's time to party.
"What happens is that people get interested in the sport, typically because of success or some really outstanding player, and then you build social activities around it."
One popular theory is that the resident students won't come out for basketball until it's the thing to do.
Jellison said: "There are social pressures everywhere in life. That's not unique to college students and not unique to USC. Social factors are major factors in why we do a lot of things.
"That's an easy way to condemn students or fraternity people, and that's not fair. That's called human nature."
A study by marketing student Mark Burson in 1976 concluded not only that poor student support was a chronic disease, but that poor marketing was to blame. He collaborated with Bill Boyd, son of the coach at the time.
He interviewed 282 people and wound up blaming almost everyone involved, including the sports information office for "myopic vision," then-Athletic Director Dick Perry for being "limited in scope," the ticket office for favoring football over basketball, and even Bob Boyd, his partner's father, for having his figures wrong on student support.
And most of those people, Burson said, were blaming one another. The Taft reports dittoed many of those points, if with a lighter touch, but all showed some naivete in discussing publicity and promotion.
"They say, 'Advertise!' " said Tim Tessalone, who succeeded Jim Perry as sports information director last year. "It costs money to advertise."
The Taft report suggested moving the working press to the upper levels and awarding priority seating to the students and alumni.
Tessalone responded by telling the committee that such a move would be "tantamount to slitting our PR throats."
But apparently the committee hoped to make up for that.
"Several reporters . . . could be guests of honor at the Trojan Court, where they would be 'wined and dined,' " the report said. "The positive atmosphere should lead to further publicity."
And this suggestion about television: "Give the rights away (unless, of course, some station wants to buy them)."
Terry Taft said: "I'm frustrated. The ticket office and the athletic department don't understand that the students are their clients, (that) they're dealing with a group of rather intelligent individuals coming from affluent surroundings and living in the entertainment capital of the world. You aren't going to treat those individuals with indifference and not try to cater to them."
Most recently, Taft criticized the ticket office for moving patrons of the Trojan Horseshoe family section--four season tickets for $20, total--out of their customary end-zone loge seats for the UCLA game, then selling those seats to Bruin fans.
Ticket director Pat Oliver said: "It was explained to them at the time (of purchase) that we have a verbal agreement with UCLA that they get certain seats."
It doesn't matter at the other games. Even Thursday night, the Horseshoe sections were virtually empty.
The ticket office is not part of the athletic department because athletics is not its only business.
Oliver said: "In dollars, it's over 90%. In number of events, it's less than 10%. In size of events, it's back up to 90%."
Another complaint had been that football was accorded individual game coupons in the student activity book, whereas basketball games were part of a numbered punch card, good for miscellaneous events. This season, there was a separate coupon, along with the football coupons, to exchange for the group of individual basketball tickets--except for the UCLA game.
Because so few students attended games, Oliver said, and the UCLA game was "a potential sellout, we had to know how many people were coming."
Students could still get in through a $2 lottery.
Last week, Oliver's office mailed out 1,000 postcards to basketball season ticket-holders, reminding them to attend this week's games--an extraordinary measure, considering they already had bought tickets.
"That was something (the ticket office did) for the athletic department," Oliver said.
Taft added: "One thing I want to make plain: I am separating Morrison when I mention promotion from the athletic department. He has worked very diligently."
Morrison has adopted some of the ideas--although not those dealing with the media. He pats a thick loose-leaf binder on his desk in Heritage Hall.
"Active promotions," he said. "At one time we had 23 going at once."
It pains Morrison when students claim they don't know about the games.
"We have 40,000 wallet cards out, posters all over the campus. It's in the Daily Trojan, it's in The Times, on radio and TV. It's not subliminal at all. And kids say, 'I didn't know there was a game.' "
Morrison seems to be popular on campus.
Singer said: "Coach Morrison has done a terrific job in turning the program around."
Walking briskly from a press luncheon to change for practice and then walking to practice, the coach was hailed several times by students wishing him luck.
Morrison presents a scholarly, conservative appearance with his neatly combed hair and horn-rimmed glasses but has a contrasting idea about the image he wants for USC basketball. He likes to think of it as a blue-collar team.
"I'd love every fraternity and sorority on this campus to come up with a Dancing Barry at every timeout," he said. "Plug in some speakers and some kid just lets his hair down. I want the kids involved. Don't give us a coat-and-tie crowd."
For the Cal game this season, the high school coaches of the four players from Orange County were guests of the basketball team. Morrison suggested the players give them plaques indicating their appreciation.
Morrison seems to have the athletic director's support.
McGee, 45, a former All-American tackle at Duke who succeeded Dick Perry last summer, said: "Clearly, we are not in a surplus position in the sport of basketball. Basketball does not break even--not even close.
"But I feel very strong about basketball at this institution. We are going full-speed ahead to have the best basketball program possible, within the concept of an educational institution."
There are some wait-and-sees.
Rick Herron, an insurance salesman, class of '73, said: "No matter what you want to think, football has a higher priority than basketball. It brings in the revenue."
But Herron also noted: "We are getting some positive (basketball) stories in the paper, which are much better than what we've had in the past--the Purvis Millers and the Gerry Wrights."
Miller, a four-year letterman through 1981, was once found to be carrying a gun. Wright quit the team with four games remaining in the '83 season and transferred to Iowa. Sophomore Ken Johnson quit after one game that season and transferred to Michigan State, indicating he believed he couldn't be a star in Morrison's system.
The athletic department will soon hire a full-time marketing-promotional person, a position it has never had. Morrison's attitude has helped. He has a talent for turning negatives into positives.
About the lack of a true home court, he said: "Our players don't care where they practice. Good, tough, competitive people don't care."
And about low attendance hurting recruiting, he said: "Sure, kids want to go where people will see 'em play. I tell 'em, 'Hey, don't come here if you don't want a challenge.' "