Where did all the fans go?

By and
Nov. 17, 2010, 3:03 a.m.
Where did all the fans go?
(JONATHAN YORK/The Stanford Daily)

Despite the many successes of Stanford’s football team this year, one glaring bruise on the reputation of the program has been its low attendance levels, evident in the consistently far-from-full Stanford Stadium. Though lost revenue is one concern, Stanford’s inability to fill the stands is a problem that matters to more than just the ticket office.

Operating under current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) procedures, a team’s record and performance on the field are the most important factors that determine which bowl a team will end up in. However, other factors, like a team’s ability to sell tickets, do matter as well. Bowl organizers not only want a great football game, they want a packed stadium. Stanford’s notorious lack of attendance at home games this year, despite fielding a top-10 team, could have negative consequences on its bowl hopes.

Despite what some consider lackluster attendance, Stanford football ticket sales are up significantly from 2008, when the Cardinal had a similar home schedule to this year’s, facing Arizona, USC and Washington State. Compared to 2008, the Stanford Ticket Office sold more than 10,000 additional tickets per game for the Arizona and Washington State games this season and also beat its USC tally by over 1,000.

However, some in the sports media have said that these improvements are not enough. On ESPN and Mercury News sports blogs, writers have noted the lack of attendance at recent games, especially the high-stakes game against then-No. 15 Arizona. Noticing the thousands of empty seats, ESPN blogger Ted Miller asked, “What’s a team got to do to get some love from the locals?”

If anyone has the answer to that question, it’s Rich Muschell, the assistant athletic director and director of ticket sales for Stanford. While he acknowledged that the students are doing a great job supporting Cardinal football and that the Red Zone has been full for every home game since school started, it’s all the other seats in the stadium that Stanford is struggling to fill.

“Where we are really trying to make a difference is reaching out to the broader Bay Area market,” Muschell said when asked about specific steps his office is taking to boost sales. “God love the Stanford alums who buy season tickets, but there just aren’t enough of them in the area. We are trying to reach out to the general football fan.”

Muschell also described other steps that the athletic department has taken to increase support and attendance, such as offering special discounts and deals and advertising in multiple Costcos in the Palo Alto area, in hopes of attracting more local residents to games.

“We have a great facility, and we keep our ticket prices competitive,” he said. “The level of attendance has been growing over the last couple years, so it’s a work in progress.”

Some have noted that the officially reported ticket sales and actual attendance vary widely. The Washington State game had a reported attendance of 36,679, but it was clear that there were far fewer people actually in the stadium.

Muschell noted that this discrepancy is consistent with general ticketing principles, not Stanford being deceptive or inaccurate.

“We report total tickets sold, not official attendance numbers,” Muschell said. “And we report those numbers directly to finance, so we don’t mess with them at all.”

Another problem that may contribute to the empty seats is this year’s schedule. Stanford alternates home and away games with its Pac-10 opponents each year (though this practice will change next season with the new Pac-12 arrangements), and this season is what Muschell describes as a “lean year.” While USC consistently draws a crowd, partly because its fans travel in such large numbers, Washington State and Oregon State tend to be less popular matchups.

Whatever the cause of the attendance woes, the unfortunate fact is that Stanford is doing exceptionally poorly when compared to other teams around the country, particularly other top-10 programs.

Official NCAA statistics from 2009 for home game attendance give Stanford an average of 82.8 percent capacity, well below a number of other major-conference programs. California had similar numbers at an 82.6 percent average, and Oregon filled its stadium to 108 percent of capacity at an average game. The other four teams currently above Stanford in the BCS standings also outpaced the Cardinal in attendance: LSU and Boise State each sold out their stadiums for every game, and Auburn wasn’t far behind with average attendance of 96.8 percent. TCU is relatively lower, only filling its stadium to 86.7 percent capacity at an average game.

With only one more home game this season, a Nov. 27 matchup against Oregon State at the tail end of Thanksgiving break, the attendance rankings are likely to remain lower than most other BCS-ranked teams.

Muschell admitted that the holiday will make attendance for the game unpredictable.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.

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