MORGANTOWN – In a way, it crept up on us like an overnight blizzard. The stars twinkled when the lights went out and it was refreshingly fresh.
Oh you knew it was coming The weather reports told you to expect it, but you weren’t really sure if it wouldn’t slip around you and that everything would be fine the next morning.
Then quietly, during the night, it began quietly, quietly, relentlessly. Unlike a summer thunderstorm, it wasn’t loud and violent, just gentle, beautiful snowflakes fluttering toward the ground until you woke up and looked out the window, smiled, and then suddenly realized the path was shoveled, the car cleaned, the streets manicured had to be to.
So it was with the football-goers in West Virginia. You knew the day would come when you would have to pay the piper for losses and COVID and uncertainty for a coach who was in trouble trying to save his job while existing in a conference that suddenly found his two largest and wealthiest franchises.
You knew it was happening, but you had to see it in black and white, and that came this week when collegefootball.com released a summary of the 5-year attendance averages for the 131 schools in the D-1 and their rankings, as well as attendance numbers for 2022 attracted the largest crowds.
Overall, it was hardly disastrous for West Virginia, as it ranked 33rd nationally with a 5-year median attendance of 44,032, a number that was drastically reduced in COVID-19 2020 but affected all schools.
When you pitched it to new athletic director Wren Baker, who’s still trying to grope his way through so much that’s unfamiliar, he took it without panic.
“It’s a trend at our institution and nationally,” he said. “Most people didn’t have the same type of crowds after COVID that they did before COVID. Some people (fans) just dropped out. The fans are the lifeblood of our program and we understand that.”
But like the weather reports we get, there are scary signals in the raw data.
For example, WVU has only played at 73.4% of its stadium capacity over the past five years. Of the 14 teams that make up the “new big 12” competing before Texas and Oklahoma go to the SEC this year, which is lower than any other school except Kansas and Houston.
The Mountaineers have gone from an average of 58,158 five years ago in 2018 to 55,907 in the COVID year, from 6,653 per game to 51,584 in 2021 and just 47,658 last year.
The 47,658 is the lowest home attendance other than the COVID year since 2001, when Rich Rodriguez’s team averaged 48,323 per game.
Additionally, last season’s largest attendance was 52,188 for the home opener against Kansas. When they reached the final game of the season at home against Kansas State, a crowd of 37,055 was in attendance.
Since 2002, WVU has attracted at least 60,000 spectators every year except for 2013, when the largest attendance was 58,570, and last year, when only 51,288 came to see the top game.
Baker cautions against reading too much into such numbers, but notes that they also cannot be brushed aside.
“You have to take a lot of things into account when you look at the raw data, who the opponent was, when those games fell, there are a lot of anomalies. You have to be careful not to read too much into a single snapshot.”
However, this is vital in all areas of a football program’s success, from home field advantage to recruitment to finances.
“In terms of the importance of home field advantage to our programs, we certainly know that we’ve enjoyed some home field field advantage over the years, but also what that means for the bottom line as we need to generate revenue every time we have the opportunity,” said Baker.
“I wouldn’t say that all the alarm bells went off for me. I’m studying to make sure we maximize the number of people who want to come to the games and give them the opportunity to come, what’s their experience, how does the home game schedule play along? he added.
Baker, of course, was hired with the top priority of evaluating ailing coach Neal Brown’s performance as coach and deciding whether to keep him into next season.
Will attendance play a role in this assessment?
“In general, I’m pretty cautious about judging a coach if I rely too much on the presence of fans in these judging methods. For the same reason, coaches talk about the process versus the results on the scoreboard all the time.” said Baker.
“The most important thing for coaches is to recruit the right type of student-athlete, to coach the student-athlete, to provide an experience that the student-athlete enjoys and feels good about, to connect with the community and do their part , to represent the institution and the condition good … so I would stop by saying that the presence does not matter, but it is not a central focus of the evaluation process.”
This is all happening as the Big 12 make their way to the SEC around WVU with Oklahoma and Texas, the conference’s top two attendees and the conference’s two biggest national faces, after this season, while Cincinnati, Houston, BYU and Central Florida to join the conference.
The round robin schedule is gone and how these four teams are accepted at Morgantown will matter as all four, Cincinnati and BYU, will be playing at home.
What impact will it have on climber participation?
“I think Cincinnati will be a net positive for us. They might not have had the national brand or history that Oklahoma and Texas have, but I’d be shocked if that wasn’t a very well attended game. said Baker. “Cincinnati will bring a lot of fans here. People will come to see a regional rival, something we’ve lacked in recent years.”
Although BYU is foreign land to WVU fans, it’s probably the biggest addition to the conference. If Texas and Oklahoma go, it will have the highest average attendance of any Big 12 team over the past five years, barely edging out Iowa State
“Historically, BYU brings a lot of fans. People who are Mormons across the country follow them, and whenever they are in an area they come out to see them.” said Baker. “BYU has a very passionate following. If you look at the league, BYU matches a lot of passion from our fan bases. They haven’t been to a conference for a long time, but it’s a very tradition-based program.”
As for Houston and Central Florida, Baker sees them as good opponents for WVU.
“I’m guessing as long as (former WVU) coach (Dana) Holgorsen is in Houston the game is going to be pretty good.” he said. “I think people will be excited to see UCF. That’s a brand that’s trendy that’s popping up. This is sort of new money, to use an old term. I think they can develop quite a following.
“I don’t think the new league membership will have a negative impact. It’s more likely to be slightly positive for the league, at least initially.”