A sour economy may have nixed plans to build a new, $147 million Richmond Coliseum, as recommended in a consultant's group study released Jan. 27. But the idea might have been more realistic if the 40-year-old arena hadn't lost a key tenant more than a decade ago: the Virginia Commonwealth University men's basketball team.
When the Stuart C. Siegel Center opened in 1999 on Broad Street, the Rams skipped across town to play home games in that smaller, 7,500-seat arena. Some bemoaned the loss, but at the time the Rams were a mediocre draw. It had been years since Coach J.D. Barnett and his tournament busters put VCU basketball on the map in the 1980s. City Hall also didn't put up much of a fight to keep the team downtown.
The Coliseum's only remaining sports anchor, the Richmond Raiders arena football team, drew an average of 2,600 for seven home games in 2010. For the 2009-'10 season, the Rams drew 113,993 people to 19 home games.
With VCU winning Colonial Athletic Association championships and making regular appearances in the NCAA tournament, ticket sales at the Siegel Center have been rising steadily.
This year, the university hired additional staff to push group-ticket sales and more promotions (witness last week's free copies of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, courtesy of Rodney the Ram). Through its first 12 home games, the team is averaging 6,397 fans per game. Keith Rafter, assistant athletic director for marketing and promotions at the university, says the Rams should sell out their last four games. Last year, VCU averaged 6,000 for home games.
Meanwhile, the University of Richmond Spiders men's team, which came into the year with considerably more buzz, has averaged 5,764 fans through its first 12 home games, including 8,906 against VCU on Dec. 11. That's a marked jump from the 2009-'10 season, when the team averaged 4,629 for its 15 home games.
An argument can be made that VCU's success has much to do with the Siegel Center. The smaller arena offers a more intimate experience, with fans closer to the action. In the 12 years since it opened, VCU also has added more dormitories and its student attendance at games has increased dramatically.
But what if the Rams still played at the Coliseum? For VCU's home game against archrival Old Dominion University this weekend, Rafter says all but 30 of the arena's 7,500 seats had been sold as of Monday morning. If the game were at the Richmond Coliseum, Rafter says he could easily sell 10,000 tickets.
Not that he's advocating for a return to the dungeon.
“We've got the best venue,” he says of the Siegel Center. “A lot of it is home-court advantage. Why would we want to take away from that?”