PEORIA — An 85-68 win by the Bradley men’s basketball team over I-74 opponent Illinois State on Wednesday night could be a shot in the arm to the long-time rivalry.
The Carver Arena crowd was announced at 7,122, which is a far cry from the sellouts that used to be the norm for the "War on 74." The last sellout for the rivalry game was in the 2009-10 season, when both teams combined to draw 21,481 fans to the two games.
Attendance started slipping the following year, when BU and ISU tied for last place in the Missouri Valley Conference. Last season’s two games attracted a combined 14,052 fans — the lowest figure in the past 15 years.
To some, however, fewer fans in the stands has more to do with the viewing options available today.
"It’s not a Bradley-ISU thing," said former Bradley player Eddie Mathews. "That’s just the way of the world. More people are on their phones and doing other things on social media.
"If you put both of these teams with something at stake in the Valley, this thing would fill up quickly."
Mathews played in the early 1980s, when the Redbirds first joined the Missouri Valley Conference.
"We sold out every home game my senior year," Mathews said. "And you would hope that our families continue to tell stories of Bradley when we were in the prime, and that some of the passion leaks down to sons and daughters. They could bring that passion back to this rivalry."
Dick Luedke, the long-time ISU radio play-by-play commentator, said that college basketball attendance is down everywhere.
"I think it’s because there’s so much available on television," said Luedke, who is in his 33rd season as the voice of ISU athletics. "Every game the Redbirds and Braves play is streamed.
"But in this rivalry, each team has been down at different times. It seems like it’s been pretty rare in recent years that both teams weren’t able to play for the conference championship. Each team has had its turn doing so. Hopefully they’ll both get back up there."
Dave Snell, in his 40th year as the voice of the Bradley men’s basketball team, agrees. But he hopes things will turn around soon.
"I think the true fans — the hard-core fans — are always going to be at those places," he said. "But we’re a long way from 11,000, when the two played for a championship.
"But to make a good rivalry, you have to have some balance, and Bradley broke a long losing streak to them last year. But I think it’s indicative of the college basketball landscape that unless you’re Duke or North Carolina, you’re not going to get a sellout."
Some fans still remember when the personalities of former Bradley coach Dick Versace and ISU coach Bob Donewald helped keep the rivalry alive.
"You don’t’ have the coaches going at each other like they used to," said Ron Anthony, who has been a volunteer at Bradley home games for 34 years. "It fueled the rivalry. Fans would come in wearing Versace wigs and really get into the games."
Another long-time Bradley fan, Ray Picl, said that he also enjoyed the Versace-Donewald era.
"They were always on each other, and everybody was trying to out-do each other," said Picl, who started attending games in 1939 when he was just 10. "Now it’s more or less about trying to win a ballgame."
Seating for opposing fans also has become an issue that has affected attendance in the rivalry.
Bill and Kristen Shaner, a pair of ISU alums, watched Wednesday’s game from Kelleher’s Pub rather than attend the game just a few blocks away.
"We are tired of sitting in nosebleed seats," said Bill Shaner, a 1986 ISU grad who used to don a Versace "cotton ball" wig while playing on the Redbirds band. "And there’s no reason to give money to the BU program.
"It’s a good rivalry, but it’s changed a lot. With BU not being competitive for a while, it affected a lot of the rivalry from my perspective. But with BU getting competitive, hopefully it will get better.
"Oh, and the gargoyle (Kaboom!, the BU mascot) is dumb!"
At least some things are keeping the BU-ISU rivalry alive.
Johnny Campos can be reached at 686-3214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnnyCampos59.