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Despite Rankings & Success, Syracuse WBB Draws Conference-Low Attendance

No matter how good Syracuse women's basketball seems to get, they just can't seem to draw a crowd.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it catches Taylor Ford by surprise when she takes a moment to look around the Carrier Dome to see the quiet, empty stands surrounding her.

If it's a tight game, she won't bother to check. But on nights when Syracuse has a comfortable lead, she can't help but notice. The Carrier Dome stands, which fill up for Ford's men's basketball counterparts, are blatantly barren when her team takes the court.

"Me and Brittney Sykes would always joke around about it during warmups," Ford said.  "But it's kind of gotten normal to me now."

Despite Syracuse's growth into one of college basketball's best, its attendance numbers haven't grown as exponentially. The Orange averages 687 fans at home games, the worst in the ACC and of any team in one of the power five conferences. Of the ACC's 15 teams, eleven are able to average more than 1,000 fans per game. Five are over the 3,000 mark.

"We very, very much appreciate those who come out and support us," point guard Alexis Peterson said. "We're just here to play whether we have five or 1,500."

On most nights, a school of more than 14,000 can't produce a single person for the student section even though tickets are free with an SU identification.

It's a depressing sight that leads Ford to admit that the team could benefit more by playing in an intimate gym than in an expansive, yet empty arena.

"I think it would be because the tighter it is, it feels like the fans are more interactive with us," Ford said.  "At Duke, their gym is very small so everyone is surrounded by them so you can hear when they are cheering. You can actually feel them. It kind of pumps you up."

Ford said it was a little shocking when she first got to Syracuse to see a 35,000 seat venue so empty. She came from Nazareth High School, a powerhouse program in New York City, where she won a state championship in 2011. Gyms were routinely packed with fans, some who stayed all the way from 3 to 9 p.m. to watch high school basketball.

At the Carrier Dome, the hundreds of people in attendance are sparsely scattered across the lower bowl, even with the upper deck not in use. At some stoppages in the game, the play-by-play announcers can be faintly heard at the press table on the other side of the basket.

Quentin Hillsman, though, scoffed at the idea of having an ACC team play in a smaller, "high school mentality" environment.

"We're a high major, Division I program," Hillsman said. "When you say the Dome, I don't think there's many people who follow college basketball asking you where is that and what is that. Everyone knows what the Dome is."

Then, there's this paradox: Syracuse continues to have one of the best home court advantages in the country, even though that home is pretty empty.

The Orange has won 69 straight nonconference home games in a row, dating back to the 2006-07 season. Syracuse has gone 11-1 at home this season, including an upset over No. 13/11 North Carolina.  Since moving from Manley Field House for the 2005-2006 season, Syracuse is 100-45 in the Carrier Dome, good for a 68.9 percent winning percentage.

For the past few seasons, players and coaches have said that if they could keep winning and putting out a good product, the fans will come. Syracuse's record-breaking crowds for the men show that there's opportunity to attract a bigger fanbase.

But attendance has actually dwindled, despite recent tournament success. The Orange had a recent high of 1,119 fans per game in the 2010-2011 season. That total dipped to 1,022, 662 and 599 in the following three years.

The gap between the men and the women, meanwhile, has ballooned.

The men's team drew about 44 times as many fans as the women's team last season, according to data from The Swish Appeal's James Bowman. Syracuse's ratio was by far the highest of 344 Division I teams with available attendance information. It's the third-straight season when Syracuse sits at the top of the list.

That's not to say 26,000 should come to see Quentin Hillsman's team face Pittsburgh. But on average, college teams sell about four times as many tickets for its men's basketball team as for the women, Bowman's data shows. By that mark, an average attendance between 1,500 and 2,000 should be attainable. Or, at least a few more than the 700 or so which the Orange is projected to average this season.

Hillsman said it's not something he's too worried about because he can only control the product on the court. So far, he's done his job even if it has largely gone unnoticed in Syracuse. The 9th-year head coach added that he's happy with his current home as it is and hasn't followed the ongoing debate about the future of the Carrier Dome.

"I love being in there and more importantly, it's a commitment that was made for us to be in there as Dr. (Daryl) Gross has given the resources for us to be in that facility," Hillsman said. "There are a lot of teams that are top 25 teams that are playing in those high school style type gyms and we're not one of those."

For now, the Orange will continue its rise to the top of college basketball, even as its attendance numbers continue to sit at the bottom.

"We see that the people are not there, but at the same time we boost each other," guard Cornelia Fondren said. "Our coach has faith in us and we play off each other. We feed off each other."