So, how big of a problem is attendance for Penn State football?
It sure seems like a hefty problem. The numbers are way down from just a couple of years ago, and they might be for several years during the NCAA sanction era.
Barring a major surge in the second half of this season - there should be at least a modest bump in attendance for the four Big Ten home games - PSU won't average at least 100,000 fans for the first time since the 2001 stadium expansion to the current capacity of about 107,000.
Last week's attendance against Temple, 93,680, was the lowest since the expansion. Ohio (97,186) and Navy (98,792) were a little better.
The three home games thus far all rank among the seven least-attended games of the expansion era.
Looks like a serious problem, eh?
Well, 90-something thousand is a heck of a lot of people at a football game and the envy of almost any other school.
But 10,000 empty seats isn't a good thing for a program that has always packed them in.
So how big of a problem is it?
There are so many factors and variables connected to attendance (weather, home team success, opposing team fans, etc.) that it's very difficult to anticipate where things will go from here.
But what's certain is how we got here: Penn State football has absorbed a near perfect storm of extraneous negative elements that has caused the attendance decline.
So much has happened that it is fairly remarkable attendance isn't lower.
PSU football fans have been drop-kicked by the following:
- The STEP program implemented before the 2011 season that caused a reported 5,000 drop in season tickets.
- Unprecedented tumult about the university relating to the entire Sandusky scandal in general, disgust with Sandusky's acts specifically and sickness over what he did to the victims.
- Widespread rage at the behavior of the Board of Trustees.
- The death of Joe Paterno, and disgust with the treatment of Paterno.
- Disillusionment over Paterno's lack of follow-up in the Sandusky matter.
- Anger and despondence over the NCAA sanctions.
- The brutally flawed Freeh Report, and its blind acceptance by the media, NCAA and BOT.
- The possibility that school leaders, specifically Gary Schultz and Tim Curley (who are awaiting trial), possibly Spanier and perhaps Paterno, flubbed their responsibility at best, and concealed a pedophile at worst.
- The inexplicable, widespread, epic failure of the national media to examine so many other critical aspects of the entire Sandusky affair.
That's a lot for a fan base to swallow, and surely more than any fan base ever has absorbed.
PSU attendance dropped during 2011 mainly due to STEP, the Seat Transfer & Equity Program instituted by the school prior to that season.
Many longtime season-ticket holders were required to increase their donations to the university's Nittany Lion Club to maintain their seats. Many declined, some angrily.
Season ticket sales reportedly dropped by 5,000 (though revenue reportedly went up by about $5 million), and it resulted in the three least-attended games of the stadium expansion era coming in 2011 (at least until 2012 arrived). This despite the team getting off to an 8-1 start (albeit an uninspiring 8-1 start, if there is such a thing).
Then there's everything related to Sandusky, Paterno, the BOT, the Freeh Report, the sanctions, etc. For example, some PSU football supporters might stop attending games, at least for a time, due to anger over the treatment of Paterno by the university. Or due to overwhelming disgust about Sandusky. Or due to rage against the bumbling, self-serving BOT, or the NCAA/Mark Emmert, or the $6.5 million Freeh was paid to offer his slanted, unchallenged opinion.
However, there are two other major factors - which Penn State is far from alone in dealing with - that are having a great impact on football attendance.
The ongoing plodding economy, and the increasing awesomeness of hi-def television.
In Florida, the two schools with the biggest football followings are having attendance issues too, both of which would seem to be mainly the result of the economy.
The mighty Florida Gators have not sold out several games since the start of last season. The opener this season, vs. Bowling Green, drew 84,704, about 4,000 below capacity. The other home game so far, against Kentucky, officially drew 87,102, but the eye test revealed a lot more than 1,500 empty seats.
Much worse is Florida State's attendance, which has been down for about 4-5 years.
FSU packed its 82,300-seat stadium last week against Clemson, but the 'Noles first three home games this season averaged a paltry 70,002, despite FSU having its best team in 12 years.
In other words, despite a seating capacity about 25,000 less than PSU, Florida State has had more empty seats this season. Such figures are the new norm: In 2010, FSU averaged 71,270, which is 12,000 below capacity.
At Tennessee, one of six schools in the 100K seating capacity club (see chart at bottom), a little tumult has led to plummeting attendance. The Vols went through three coaches in three years from 2008-10, and have struggled on the field with six losses or more in four straight seasons.
UT attendance fell from 105,789 in 2006, to 94,642 last season. (It might get worse, as the Vols are averaging just over 90,000 through three games in 2012, including 81,719 last week against Akron.)
In that same span, PSU dropped from 107,567 (2nd nationally) to 101,427 (4th), and likely will go a little lower in 2012.
So, it seems reasonable to conclude the economy and hi-def TVs have kept some people away from Beaver Stadium as well. Or at least kept them from the inside of Beaver Stadium. Surely there are some who make the pilgrimage to Happy Valley, enjoying the communal ritual of tailgating with friends outside the stadium - football is the tie that binds the university's alumni community - and then perhaps save the $70 a pop, or more, plus the booster club donation, by not going into the game, and instead watching on the HDTV in their friend's motorhome.
And that's just part of the expenses for those traveling a good distance. Hotel, transportation, etc., can be hundreds more.
Other erstwhile Nittany Lion supporters might be taking a sabbatical from PSU football after the insanity of the past 11 months.
Which leads to this question: will those who might think they are temporarily staying away from Beaver Stadium this fall actually ever return?
When they see how fabulous the game is in their 74-degree living room, on their new 55-inch hi-def TV, with the neighbors over, a mini-tailgate on the back porch, brats on the grill, a cold one in hand and extra money in their pocket might they want to ... reconsider?
So, attendance is somewhat of a problem for PSU, now and moving forward. It might not be that easy to revive it to the old standards, even after the sanctions, even with success on the field.
Winning might cure all things, and time might heal all wounds, and new head coach Bill O'Brien might win everyone over with his all-around excellence. But HDTV with slow-motion replays and a crappy economy are potent forces, too.
PSU's powers-that-be also might want to consider reducing the number of seats in the stadium by a couple thousand. Which could be accomplished by simply expanding by a few inches the size of each condensed seat space, something that would be universally welcomed by the sardines, er, fans.
Make no mistake, attendance does matter, a lot, for a major college program such as Penn State. It's a whole chicken-egg type cycle. Good coaching begets winning begets attendance begets recruiting begets coaching stability begets fan support begets attendance begets recruiting begets winning begets money ... you get the point. They're all interconnected.
See the chart at the end of this post for a list of the top 12 biggest college football stadiums. What do all of these schools with massive stadiums and astronomical attendance have in common?
They're all usually really good at football.
There are attendance exceptions, of course, notably Miami, which has relatively mediocre attendance even when the 'Canes are excellent. But the exceptions are, by definition, rare.
Attendance is the No. 1 manifestation of fan support and a huge part of the rapid resuscitation of Penn State football. An enormous, jam-packed, raucous, electric stadium shows recruits and anyone else - including all the pundits out there eager to write about the demise of PSU football - that Penn State football remains a vibrant entity.
Coaches don't boast to recruits about having the most fans on Internet message boards; they boast about the fans in the seats.
Television is a force in all this, also. The cameras scan the crowd, you see all the people, you hear the roar. If you see the camera sweep past a section of empty seats, what do you think?
You think Pitt football (gratuitous cheap shot). You think mediocrity.
Attendance also generates revenue, of course. And we know PSU is a little strapped these days, with the legal fees, lawsuits and fines surely running well into the hundreds of millions. (All because the District Attorney inexplicably cleared Sandusky in 1998. But we digress ...)
So, PSU must now minimize the attendance drop, and, against the odds - or at least upstream against the economy and HDTV - reverse the trend. Because with a full-house of in-stadium support, the Nittany Lions could return to prominence much faster than almost anyone could imagine. (Certainly you've noticed the progress on the field despite all of the NCAA-induced transfers.)
If that happens, all Penn Staters win, even those so dismayed by the scandal or sanctions they have dropped PSU football from their life.
And if it doesn't happen? Well, perpetual mediocrity loves company, so Maryland and Purdue and many others would welcome Penn State with open arms.
Based on stadium capacity, the Top 12 college football stadiums:
school attendance 2006 attendance 2011 capacity
1. Michigan 110,026 112,179 109,901(107,501 in 2006)
2. Penn State 107,567 101,427 106,572
3. Tennessee 105,789 94,642 102,455 (104,079 in 2006)
4. Ohio State 105,096 105,231 102,329
5. Alabama 92,138 101,821 101,821 (92,138 in 2006)
6. Texas 88,505 100,524 100,119 (85,123 in 2006)
7. Georgia 92,746 92,613 92,746
8. LSU 92,212 92,868 92,400
9. Florida 90,409 89,061 88,548
10. Auburn 85,063 85,792 87,451
11. Texas A&M 75,985 87,183 83,002 (82,600 in 2006)
12. Florida State 80,532 77,842 82,300
A few random others:
school attendance 2006 attendance 2011 capacity
Georgia Tech 50,617 48,232 55,000
Kansas State 46,693 49,030 50,000
Washington 57,483 62,531 72,500
Pitt 43,305 46,003 65,050
Notes: UCLA (Rose Bowl, 94,118) and USC (L.A. Memorial Coliseum, 93,607) play in Top 10-sized stadiums, but neither is on campus, and those two schools, while they certainly have respectable football tradition - or much better than respectable tradition, in the case of USC - don't compare with the larger Big Ten and SEC schools, and Texas. UCLA averaged only 56,644 in 2011, and USC averaged just 74,806 in 2011 despite two sellouts, against Stanford and UCLA. ... calculating attendance seems to be in the eye of the beholder, as some might include media, stadium personnel, sideline guests, etc., and some do not. Almost all seem to count ticket sales, not the actual turnstile count. So, for example, people who don't show up for a bad weather game but bought a ticket are counted.