While the UW men’s basketball season may still be nearly two months away from its regular season opener at the Kohl Center Nov. 11, it’s already that time of year again for UW students to reserve their spots in the Grateful Red student section for the 2012-2013 season.

Since its first season in 1998, the Kohl Center has had the pleasure to boast a 2,100-seat student section extending from the floor to the nosebleeds on the south end of the court as part of a stadium seating capacity of over 17,000. That makes the Kohl Center one of the bigger college basketball venues in the country.

And since the Grateful Red’s inaugural season in 2002 – when the student section was renamed after previously being called “Mr. Bennett’s Neighborhood” before former head coach Dick Bennett’s resignation during the 2000-2001 season – it has been just that: a hostile environment for any team brave enough to play there.

To illustrate how overwhelming a place like the Kohl Center can be: Since Bo Ryan’s first game coaching the Badgers in 2001, the team has gone an unbelievable 166-15 (yes, you read that right) at home, giving the Badgers at the Kohl Center the fourth-best winning percentage in all of NCAA Division I basketball as of 2011.

Unfortunately, the intimidating presence of the Grateful Red may not be quite so intimidating in future seasons.

Division I college basketball attendance at home games has been in a slow decline across the country since the 2008 season, and while UW men’s basketball tickets have still managed to sell out regularly during that span, many team’s tickets – especially student tickets – increasingly go unused each year.

In response to the disturbing trend, the UW Athletic Department has tried multiple strategies to once again fill the student section to the rafters over the last few years – including a shift to half-season ticket packages, the creation of a winter break package and many free giveaways, like free shirts, throughout the season – with varying degrees of success.

This year, though, when tickets went on sale to students early this morning at 7:30, they came with one major change from last year’s ticket plan: a return to one massive ticket package, containing a whopping 15 home games throughout the season, priced at $150.

From a ticket-selling standpoint, the return to one package initially might seem like a smart move by the UW Athletic Department. The die-hard fans who were awake early this morning to get the limited tickets – the new plan creates half as many season tickets as in past years – are more likely to consistently go to games, but it also leaves questions for the future of the Grateful Red this season and beyond.

By returning to the old format of just one package, with the ability to add on a four-game winter break package for $40 more, the athletic department magnified the pressure on the students to make sure the Grateful Red is filled during each game this season.

While before it was fairly easy to attend seven to nine games a season by purchasing one of the two season ticket packages, now any student who buys tickets this year will be faced with attending every one of the 15 home games. This becomes a daunting task when many of the games fall on weeknights and coincide with midterms and finals.

As a result, many tickets will likely go unused if students choose not to use, or can’t manage to sell, their unwanted tickets. It’s a phenomenon that could leave sections 114 through 117 emptier than usual this winter.

Still, while this most certainly doesn’t mean Wisconsin will host talented teams like Michigan Feb. 9 or Ohio State Feb. 17 in front of an empty student section, many of the non-marquee games may experience a dip in student attendance simply because UW students don’t have time to go to so many games in a single season.

The continuation of the winter break ticket package again this year has the potential to be an even more damaging effect that this ticket plan could have on student attendance and the team’s performance. 

The winter break package, which gives students the option to avoid having to try to sell games during the month-long winter break, can be particularly useful for students who return home or are out of town during break, but it also discourages students from going to those games altogether if they don’t already have the money invested in tickets to winter break games.

If last year’s winter break package experiment was any indication, the Badgers could be in for rough winter break again this season if the student section continues to have low winter break attendance.

Out of five home games included in the winter break package last year, the Badgers lost two – including an unexpected loss to an Iowa Hawkeyes team that finished with a measly 3-9 record away from home in 2011-2012 – on their way to four total home losses for the season.

So, despite the almost unreal success the Badgers have had at home over the last decade, if Bo’s most dependable sixth man, the Grateful Red, can no longer provide the intimidating environment fans have become accustomed to at the Kohl Center, that impressive record may be put to the test more frequently in the coming season and beyond.

Nick is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you agree or disagree with the UW Athletic Department consolidating the ticket packages? Let him know at [email protected]