UM football attendance simply not adding up

By REBECCA LATTANZIO
School of Communication
University of Miami

The University of Miami has had little trouble in recent years getting ESPN coverage, both good and bad but, for a school that is a media favorite, UM has struggled getting seats filled at its new home in Sun Life Stadium.

For the 2009 season, the Hurricanes brought out a total of 285,306 fans to its football games, or an average of 47,551 per game, which was a slight increase from the previous season’s 46,299.

Students cheer at Sun Life Stadium. Source: Rebecca Lattanzio.

Next to its Florida university football-playing counterparts however, UM pales in comparison.

The University of Florida ranked seventh in the NCAA’s attendance statistics in Division I football in 2009 with an average of 90,635 people at each home game. Florida State fell far behind those impressive numbers, but still maintained an average attendance of 74,345 fans per game and ranked 21st overall.

It could be argued that Florida and Florida State have thousands more students and alumni than their Coral Gables rival and hold the advantage of being located in “college towns” where pro teams are non-existent and collegiate athletics rule. But the bottom line is that Miami is only filling Sun Life Stadium to about 61.4 percent of capacity, numbers that can cause the professional stadium to look empty at times.

UM Assistant Director of Ticketing Operations, Travis Watkins says that the best way to get fans to come out is “promotions, promotions, promotions.”

“This economy has affected ticket offices around the country. People won’t publicize that,” said Watkins. “There is not a blueprint to combat this, we do the best we can and we put more people in the stadiums in any way that will make an impact. Providing more promotional offers is a start, giveaways, or whatever can help revenue.

Watkins adds that team performance plays a huge factor in the attendance of any sporting event. “Nothing sells like winning. More people want to see it, be a part of it and brag about it,” he said.

University of Miami Sports Industry and Sports Information Prof. Tywan Martin agrees. He teaches his students to never downplay the money and fame that comes with wearing a championship ring.

“Fan identification is so important, when they are winning people like to be labeled as a ‘Canes fan because outsiders identify them with the school,” said Martin.

But, as Martin and anyone else that has been to Miami’s campus knows, the ‘Canes of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, set the standard high.

“Fans are extremely unrealistic in terms of expectations and so irrational in terms of where they want the University to be every year,” said Martin. “They don’t understand how hard it is to stay at the top when so many other teams are out there developing their talent.”

In 2001 and 2002, when the ‘Canes were championship winners and contenders, empty seats in the once-renowned Orange Bowl were hard to come by. But, with the recent hype behind the team, one would assume that attendance would drastically increase, or at least spike noticeably.

It’s true that the Hurricanes’ attendance numbers have risen steadily by about 2,000 persons per year since at least 2006, but the fans and athletics department want to see even more.

“There is also the factor of alumni base. UM is a pretty young school, not even 100 years old, so they just don’t have the alumni crowd yet,” Martin said. “Take a school like Indiana University, they started in 1820, so just looking at raw numbers UM isn’t going to have them.”

Anyone who looks at Miami’s attendance is forced to look at the team’s surroundings, probably the most influential factor in Miami’s struggles according to Martin.

The Dolphins have a huge following in the city, no matter what their performance is like and who can forget about that little media whirlwind that landed right in Miami this year when LeBron James decided to join the Heat roster.

“In Bloomington, Ind., if you take away the university, there is no Bloomington anymore. Here you are competing with so many other elements, the temperature, the beach, the nightlife, social offerings, along with NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB teams,” said Martin.

There is definitely no lack of pro sports fervor in Miami, but the argument that the Hurricanes can’t compete in popularity with the Dolphins, who they share Sun Life Stadium with, or the Heat is a weak one.

The University of Miami has a very powerful and permanent identity in the community and though it may not be a college town like Gainesville it has its own allures. Miami is known for recruiting local talent from high schools like Miami Northwestern and Booker T. Washington so their players already have a local fan base and a sense of community integration.

If the players didn’t make UM enough of a true home team, Coach Randy Shannon is the definition of a local boy, hailing from Miami Gardens and graduating from Norland High School, located close to Sun Life.

So, with the fan base, the ESPN love, and a facility that can seat up to 76,500 people on game day, why have the Hurricanes slipped into the 50s as far as rankings in attendance? A lot of it has to do with the students, as dedicated as they might be, they just don’t show up as often as possible.

To get the students out, many universities like the University of Miami have created incentive programs where their students rack up points with each sporting event they come to, with the chance to win generous prizes like flat screen TVs or iPods. Western Kentucky University has an Incentive program called Red Alert, Boston University’s is called Terrier Rewards and Florida International University has Panther Points.

Kris Swogger is the marketing assistant for FIU’s Athletics Department and is in charge of keeping track of and continuously updating FIU’s new incentive program.

“It includes all home games for men’s football and men’s basketball and select games for all other athletic event except golf and track and field,” said Swogger.

This is the first season that both FIU and Miami have used this incentive mode, which gathers it’s info when the students use their student identification cards for entry to games, so only time will tell if it really works.

“Over time we would like to expand and increase the amount of prizes we are able to give out,” said Swogger. “ We just want to reward students for attending.”

The University of Miami has created Hurricane Force, an incentive program that is run by the student spiriting organization, Category 5.

“We mainly want to encourage students to keep coming back,” said Brandon Mitchell, a junior at UM and the president of Category 5.

That has been a continuous problem for Miami, a place where students definitely file in for the Florida States and Oklahomas on the ‘Canes schedule, but stay home for the games against less high profile opponents like Florida A&M and Wake Forest. Mitchell echoes the thoughts of most Hurricane loyals that they are no less dedicated than any other fans.

“I think at the core we are up there with every other University, even schools like Florida, but there is room for improvement,” says Mitchell.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has had decent turnout among the 12 conferences that the NCAA recognizes. They have been ranked fifth since 2004 with average attendance of 54,186 in 2009, a number fairly noticeably higher than Miami’s personal 47,551 average in 2009.  UM also ranks a dismal eighth out 12 ACC teams in 2009, only beating out the University of Maryland, Boston College, Wake Forest, and Duke, all schools that get much less extensive ESPN coverage and pop culture attention.

These stats also decrease the performance argument, because UM is trailing behind teams like North Carolina State (ranked fourth in the ACC) and Virginia (ranked seventh) that they have consistently out-played on the field.

The Hurricanes may never reach the numbers of attendance leaders like Ohio State, at an average of 105,261 persons, if for no other reason than possible seating capacity, but they are still falling short of fan and critic expectations nonetheless.

Miami’s attendance has risen slightly each year for some time now, about 4.24 percent, but division I football attendance averages as well as ACC average attendance declined in 2009 by about 1,000 persons overall.

There are any number of reasons why people haven’t come out in the last year, the economic climate above them all. Miami’s numbers could be the contribution of smaller student numbers and pro team presence, but at the end of the day they simply don’t add up to their hype in the stats department and students as well as athletics staff is doing everything they can to change that.

Students and fans seem to agree with Martin’s assessment and think it may an even simpler reason than that: ‘Canes are just used to winning, and when they don’t, fans don’t want to show up.

Caroline Venditti, a junior at UM shares this outlook with many of her colleagues. “I think that, after a legacy like the ‘Canes had in the 80s, we expect nothing less than the best, and that goes for fans and players,” said Venditti.

The Hurricanes definitely do have a legacy to live up to and there are few who would argue that if the ‘Canes were championship contenders again their fans would rock Sun Life stadium.

“I know we will get there soon so I’m not worried,” said Venditti laughing.

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