Utah football: Utes buzzing over first Pac-12 home game
Utah corner Conroy Black said he and his teammates were going to put blinders on this week to keep their focus on the football field and what they need to do to beat Washington.
But really, do they make blinders that big?
From the Pac-12 banners around campus to the series of planned downtown events to fellow students stopping Black and his teammates wanting to talk football, everywhere the Utes go, there are constant reminders that this week is like no other for them.
Saturday's game against Washington is the first Pac-12 game in Rice-Eccles Stadium, which makes it the game everyone wants to be a part of, whether they are there or watching from afar.
"There is a big buzz about it," Black said. "It definitely feels different, but we have to treat it like a business week and try to get our work done on the field."
While the Utes are all business, everyone else will be celebrating. The Utes opened Pac-12 play with a heartbreaking 23-14 loss at USC, but the first league game at home is generating an excitement level that Zack Lassiter, Utah's assistant athletic director who is in charge of ticket sales, has rarely seen. The Utes have a few standing-only tickets remaining, but even those are expected to go fast.
"We've been talking about this game for 14 months now," he said. "It feels more like it does for a College Game Day game or TCU or BYU at the end of the year. Everywhere you go people are talking about it, and that makes it neat."
To mark the occasion, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott will attend the game and members of the Rose Bowl committee will be on hand. Fans can get involved starting Friday with the Red Movement, a series of activities designed for fans in the downtown area including pep rallies, discounts at restaurants and stores and more.
"We used to say that Utah football was a three-hour experience: People drove to the game, watched the game, then drove home," Lassiter said. "We're trying to make it more of 24-hour experience now with tailgating all over campus and these activities so it is more of a college town. It's the next step in the evolution of Utah football and making it feel like a major event."
Lassiter can focus on such details because he no longer has to put as much effort into selling tickets for Utah football. Seven years ago, Lassiter said the debate was whether Utah should give away tickets or leave large blocks of empty seats in the stands representing unsold tickets. But Utah's steady success has led to steady season ticket sales and sold-out games. The Utes enjoyed a 98-percent renewal rate in season ticket sales this year, despite raising ticket costs by an average of 30 percent to 50 percent.
Additionally, Lassiter said more casual fans are following the Utes because they are now in the Pac-12.
"There are a lot of fans, even here in Salt Lake, who identify with other Pac-12 teams," Lassiter said. "Utah might not be their No. 1 team, but they appreciate quality games and want to be a part of the Pac-12 atmosphere and have made Utah their secondary team."
As such, not all of the fans in the stands Saturday will be cheering for the Utes. Washington has sold 2,000 tickets for Saturday's contest, an amount Lassiter believes will be typical for opposing teams in the league. The large mass of fans in opposing colors in Rice-Eccles Stadium should create a very different atmosphere than games against MWC teams did since far fewer fans of those teams traveled to away games.
That the Utes are on more of a national stage now isn't lost on the team, even as they try to keep their focus narrowed to what happens on the field.
"We've been looking forward to this for a while," offensive lineman Sam Brenner said. "There is a buzz out there about this game. For us to make it even more fun, we have to play the game well."
The Utes have seen an increase in season tickets along with their success. Here is a look at season tickets sold and average attendance for recent years.
Year Season tickets Average
2003 16,147 41,478
2004 19,555 44,112
2005 21,540 41,536
2006 24,250 43,279
2007 25,141 42,593
2008 29,553 45,542
2009 31,000 45,155
2010 32,000 45,018
2011 32,000 45,311*
* One home game
P Washington at Utah, 5 p.m., TV • ROOT