Provo • An energizing season-opening win over Arizona had revitalized a fan base still sagging from last year’s disappointing season, so BYU football officials were anticipating a larger-than-normal crowd for their home opener against the Pac-12’s California on a beautiful late-summer evening in early September.
It didn’t happen.
Announced attendance was just 52,602 for a game the Bears won, 21-18. The attendance count was fewer than in all but two games last season. The late-season contests against San Jose State (46,451) and UMass (51,355) came when the Cougars were just playing out the schedule.
That San Jose State crowd, interestingly, was the smallest crowd to attend a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium since the stadium was expanded in 1982.
Naturally, officials worried — despite a major two-year effort to improve the fan experience at LES — that this Saturday’s game (4 p.m., BYUtv) against relatively unknown McNeese of the Football Championship Subdivision would challenge the SJSU game last October as the least-attended game yet.
Then BYU went out and upset No. 6 Wisconsin 24-21 last Saturday, and nobody is certain what to expect. Nationally ranked for the first time since early in the 2015 season, the No. 25 Cougars (2-1) aren’t entirely sure themselves.
“Our fans love us now,” said defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga. “I hope they’ll show up. I think they’ll represent.”
Associate Athletic Director for Communications Duff Tittle acknowledged two weeks ago that season ticket sales were down after last year’s 4-9 campaign. But he noted that season ticket sales surpassed 54,000 in 2016 (coach Kalani Sitake’s first season), the highest they had been since the 2009 season.
Still, BYU’s average attendance is slowing falling in its eighth year as a college football independent, despite its home schedule being much better than in the early years of independence. In 2011, BYU drew an average of 60,265 fans for games against Utah, UCF, Utah State, San Jose State, Idaho State, Idaho and New Mexico State.
Last year the Cougars averaged 56,267 for Portland State, Utah, Wisconsin, Boise State, San Jose State and UMass.
Losing those home games hasn’t helped. BYU has lost five of its last six home games, the worst stretch since it lost seven of eight from 2003-04 in the Gary Crowton era.
Until this year, which can be explained by last year’s 4-9 record and utter ineptitude on offense, the biggest drop was between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The Cougars went from averaging 61,225 in 2013 to 57,141 in 2014.
Tittle said at the time that fewer students were attending the games — and not just BYU students. The school used to provide a way for students at nearby schools such as Utah Valley University, Snow College, Salt Lake Community College, Provo College and Stevens-Henager College to purchase cheap tickets and sit in the student section, called the ROC (Roar of Cougars).
But BYU went to a new online-only system prior to 2014 where the all-sport passes could only be purchased by those with BYU student ID cards, and it got more difficult — but not impossible — for those other students to get tickets.
BYU isn’t alone in seeing declining attendance.
According to figures provided by BYU athletics, the national average for FBS attendance dropped from 45,498 in 2011 to 42,108 in 2017. The Wall Street Journal reported that average student attendance is down 7.1 percent since 2009 after analyzing records from 50 FBS schools nationwide.
“As we’ve tracked attendance and ticket sales for the past 25 years, the biggest factors are team record from the previous year, ticket price increases, and of course the [strength of the] home schedule,” Tittle said. “For the most part, as you can see from the year-to-year numbers, Cougar Nation has been incredibly consistent and supportive of our football program for a long time.”
In the West, BYU is still an attendance leader. In 2017, only USC (72,683) and Washington (68,822) outdrew BYU. In 2016, BYU was behind only USC (68,459), UCLA (67,459) and Washington (64,589).
Tittle points out that although this year’s home schedule is not as desirable as many would like, future home schedules are loaded with Power Five opponents. The Cougars will host USC, Washington, Utah and Boise State in 2019 and Michigan State, Utah State, Missouri, San Diego State and Houston in 2020.
In 2021, Arizona State, Boise State, Virginia, Utah and South Florida are scheduled to visit LES.
“We are fortunate to have a very large and loyal fan base, which is evident at home and as we’ve traveled extensively across the country since going independent in 2011,” Tittle said. “We certainly keep an eye on the trends and are continually trying to respond to the interests and needs of our fans.”
Tittle said BYU surveys its season ticket holders every two or three years on their game-day experiences, and found that four of the six improvements fans wanted most related to mobile connectivity.
In response, the school has installed a state-of-the-art wifi and distributed antenna system (DAS) in the stadium, “similar to the very best NFL stadiums in the country,” Tittle said. It has also installed a new social media videoboard above the east stands to allow fans to interact with other fans via social media.
“The home schedule for the next few years are arguably some of the best in school history,” Tittle said. “We hope to see improvement in ticket sales and attendance over the next three years, but realize there are other variables.”
Like whether the Cougars are coming off a historic upset of Wisconsin or not.
McNeese at No. 25 BYU
At LaVell Edwards Stadium
Kickoff • Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV • BYUtv
Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 2-1, McNeese 3-0
Series history • First meeting
About the Cowboys • They are 7-3 all-time vs. Utah schools, having gone 4-2 against Southern Utah and 3-1 vs. Weber State. ... An FCS program, they are 8-23-1 vs. FBS programs dating back to the 1982 season. … They have won two of their last three matchups with FBS opponents, having defeated Middle Tennessee State in 2012 and South Florida in 2013. They lost 31-24 to Nebraska in 2014. … They are in the top 10 in both FCS polls after knocking off No. 12 Nicholls 20-10 last week in Lake Charles, La.
About the Cougars • They are 11-0 against FCS teams in the past 30 years and 2-0 in coach Kalani Sitake’s era. … Senior LB Sione Takitaki is the College Sports Madness National Player of the Week after posting 13 tackles in the 24-21 win over No. 6 Wisconsin. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes is the Athlon Sports Coordinator of the Week after the Cougars rushed for 6.8 yards per carry against the Badgers. … They are 112th in total offense in the country, averaging 330 yards per game. They are No. 66 in total defense, giving up 368.7 yards per contest.