LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – If there’s a recurring question I’ve heard at the college basketball games I’ve been to in this young season it’s this: “Where is everybody?”

At the University of Louisville, there are obvious suspects. There is scandal fatigue. A slew of season tickets, some 588, according to one supporting exhibit of the U of L Foundation forensic audit, were used by the president’s office in past seasons, a number that has decreased significantly in the wake of an audit and tighter watch over the foundation.

And on Friday, the university acknowledged that it has refunded the donations and costs for 315 tickets held by 126 businesses and individuals who asked for their money back after the university dismissed athletic director Tom Jurich and basketball coach Rick Pitino, and acknowledged that it was implicated in an FBI investigation into a college basketball “pay for play” scandal made public in September.

The university didn’t offer a refund option. But if season ticketholders approached the athletic department asking for refunds, it responded. Eventually, the refunds cost the department $419,166 -- $239,566 in associated ticket donations and $179,600 for the cost of the tickets.

The refunds were first reported Friday by the Courier Journal.

PHOTO GALLERY | Omaha at Louisville basketball 

“Our fans have been terrific in supporting our team,” a statement from the department said Friday. “This year’s season ticket sales figure alone would rank among the top five in average attendance in the nation, if all were used each game.  We also have many six-game plans, single-game sales and group tickets that are being sold now.”

In addition to the refunded number, U of L identified two other groups that have renewed tickets in smaller numbers:

  • 403 tickets from athletics department staff. This year is the first full year that the staff has been taxed on tickets. Without that write-off, some in the department chose not to renew.
     
  • 176 tickets from the president’s office. The number was cut for cost savings and other reasons, as the university cuts back in many areas.

As of the season opener, U of L reported season-ticket sales of 17,964. That’s 1,110 fewer than a year ago, but pretty well on a par – just 39 fewer – than the 18,003 sold for the 2015-16 season.

Of the 315 refunded tickets, U of L says it has resold 78, recouping $70,187 in sales and $101,600 in donations. The school can’t estimate how many may be sold on a single-game basis.

In 2015-16, basketball ticket sales accounted for $14.159 million of the department’s overall $112.1 million in revenue. So the loss of a quarter-million dollars in revenue, while always a big deal, isn’t the end of the world. But what exactly it means, other than that a small percentage of the season-ticket holders wanted out, still isn’t clear.

Basketball attendance has been a matter for a bit of conjecture even early this season. The sample size is too small to really get a gauge on whether interest has waned, for whatever reason, but the crowds for Louisville’s first two exhibitions were sparse. The attendance for Sunday’s 2 p.m. opener against George Mason was deceptive. The lower bowl featured some conspicuous empty spaces at tipoff, but once the after-church crowd settled in, it was pretty well filled. The announced attendance was 18,304 – which means there were 3,786 empty seats.

But U of L isn’t the only program plagued with no-shows. Kentucky had 3,693 no-shows for its opener against Utah Valley State, and 3,326 for its game against Vermont.

The Louisville women have had two home games, drawing 5,444 for their WNIT quarterfinal game against Toledo and 5,651 for their semifinal win over No. 24-ranked Michigan.

PHOTO GALLERY | Louisville-Michigan Women's NIT

In four home games against ranked teams last season, the Louisville women averaged 9,665 fans, and the smallest crowd was nearly 2,200 larger than Thursday’s win over Michigan.

After the game, Louisville women’s coach Jeff Walz said, “I’m hoping we can get some more people to come out and watch this group. We run an alley-oop play to start the game, and it’s not like (Jazmine Jones) comes down and goes back up. She finishes in the air. It’s pretty darn impressive. So we’ve got a great group of young women who are really athletic, who are talented, who play hard. So I’m hoping we can get some more people to come out and watch this group.”

He’s not the only one hoping.

Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport was hoping for a big crowd when his team played host to Cincinnati in Freedom Hall. The game was marketed and promoted well. And received strong corporate support. And while the crowd was enthusiastic and an improvement on what the Knights generally draw on campus – the 4,135 was about half what Davenport had hoped for.

“I want to thank you all, because you tried,” Davenport said to the media after the game. “No matter what we asked to try to promote, you tried, and trust me, I appreciate it so much. . . . “I was so appreciative to everybody that did come. I just thought we’d have more.  It’s just hard to hide my – I just thought it would be a lot more. We worked on it as hard as we can. And I’m so appreciative of those that did.”

It's important to note, drawing conclusions from early-season games is not a wise exercise. Big-name opponents haven't visited yet. Friday night and Sunday games aren't generally as well attended as Saturday games and other weeknight games. There are many variables. This season, refunds to unhappy fans is yet another one influencing the bottom line for Louisville, though the impact -- given the overall ticket revenue -- has been relatively small.

Anyone at games in the KFC Yum! Center the past several years knows that true sellouts are rare. There are plenty of tickets to be had in the upper levels, including $5 deals from StubHub and even Groupon. The lure of HD television and the comforts of home are everywhere, not just in this college basketball hotbed.

Still, given the uncertainty facing the men's basketball program and the importance of the arena to the city's bottom line, any fluctuation bears watching.

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