Virginia Football is back: Where are the fans?
This is where I get myself a lecture for writing about ticket sales, but so be it.
The rebuild is complete, if it’s even accurate to call what Mendenhall has achieved in four short years a rebuild, considering he just did something that not even the great George Welsh had been able to achieve.
Virginia Football wandered the wilderness for the better part of 20 years from the end of the Welsh era, through Al Groh and Mike London.
The fan base wandered, too, mostly away.
As recently as 2007, UVA home football games drew 59,829 fans on average, not quite 100 percent – the official capacity at Scott Stadium is 61,500, though there have been 10 games with attendance above the official capacity, due to the standing-room-only hill behind the north end zone, with a record 64,947 crammed inside the confines for the 2008 season opener against Southern Cal.
Virginia lost that game, 52-7, went on to a 5-7 finish that season, starting a stretch of nine losing seasons in the next 10 years.
That stretch included the first two years of Mendenhall’s rebuild, a 2016 campaign that began with a thud, a 37-20 loss to Richmond, and ended with a 52-10 loss to Virginia Tech, the 13th straight defeat to the rivals from Blacksburg, and a 6-7 record in 2017 that ended with a 49-7 loss in the Military Bowl.
But, at least that final loss was in a bowl, just the second postseason game in a decade, and 2018 saw UVA finish 8-5 with a win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl, the first postseason win since all the way back in 2005.
The 2019 ‘Hoos were picked as the favorites in the ACC Coastal in the preseason, and fought through several significant injuries to key stars to win the Coastal for the first time in program history, and earn the berth to the Orange Bowl, another program first.
The 36-28 loss to #6 Florida in Miami was competitive from start to finish, even in defeat an affirmation that Mendenhall has Virginia Football on the verge of a breakthrough.
The fans: Not along for the ride
Virginia drew an average of 47,786 fans to home games in 2019, still 12,000+ off where attendance had been back in 2007, when things started going downhill.
You might be thinking, but now that Virginia has won a division championship, played in an ACC Championship Game, an Orange Bowl, they’ll start coming back.
The talk of the Virginia side of the press box Monday night in Miami was about how few UVA fans made the trip to warm South Florida.
Those who did make the trek: you’re to be commended. No doubt you had a great time. I ran into a good number of you at the Run With Jim event on the Hollywood Boardwalk early on game day, and saw several tents of tailgaters in the parking lot at Hard Rock Stadium.
The discussion among the media was focused on what Virginia needs to do to get more fans to bowl games.
My contribution was to the effect to point out how misguided it is to be worried about getting fans to bowl games.
Virginia still can’t get fans to go to games in Charlottesville, for chrissakes.
And this is where I’m putting the focus on Williams, the AD who has been doing just about everything else right since taking over in 2017.
Among her first acts was to significantly boost the training and conditioning staff for Virginia Athletics to bring the program from Group of 5 to Power 5 levels.
She’s leading a massive fundraising effort to bring to life a state-of-the-art athletics performance center that will put Virginia at the forefront.
Those are important building blocks that will pay dividends for many years to come.
The next most important focus needs to be on getting Virginia Football fans back.
The many years of losing coincided with a misguided effort in 2008 to put in place a new system of rewards for donors to give bigger contributors access to better seats that had the effect of moving long-time season-ticket holders who couldn’t afford to give at the new thresholds from seats that some had had for decades.
Many of those fans decided to become TV fans in response, and the years of losing didn’t give them incentive to come back, and the fans who would have replaced them obviously haven’t materialized in the years since.
The effect is generational. Season tickets are often the kind of thing that get handed down from parents to children to grandchildren.
Well, the flip side seems to be just as true in practice: fans who don’t come to games seem to have kids who don’t come to games, and so on.
It would seem to be incumbent upon Williams and the marketing folks in Virginia Athletics to figure out a new plan of attack, and I say new, because what’s been done dating back to the end of the Craig Littlepage era just isn’t working.
For a good part of the lean years, you could argue that fans weren’t coming because the team wasn’t winning, which, fair.
But now the team is winning, and this year was not any kind of surprise: I mean, the ‘Hoos were the preseason faves in the Coastal, and they did what they were supposed to do.
And still, the stadium averaged 14,000 below capacity, and 17,000 under what it can hold.
Do the math on what that means for the bottom line. Seven home games, 14,000 tickets unsold, that’s just under 100,000 unsold tickets.
That’s 100,000 people not paying $30 a ticket, spending another $20 on hot dogs, drinks, maybe more once or twice a year on hats, sweatshirts.
Which means we’re talking, what, $5 million, maybe more, being left on the table?
My UVA degree didn’t come from Darden, but it didn’t need to, to clue me in on this being something that we need to figure out.
Alright, smartass, so, what?
I worked in the events business for close to a decade, and among the lessons you learn when your livelihood is dependent on putting butts in seats is, one, you need to make sure the product you’re offering is something people want to see, and then two, if people still aren’t buying the tickets, you need to be creative.
If Virginia Football was my baby, I’d let Bronco and the staff off to continue doing what they’re doing on the product side, because they seem to have that one under control.
As far as the rest, well …
You have to look at everything.
At an absolute extreme, give upper-deck tickets away to an early-season game, like next year’s home opener with VMI.
Empty upper-deck seats don’t buy hot dogs, drinks, hats, and best-case, a mom and dad bring a kid, the kid has a great time, and pesters mom and dad to go to another game, and they do, and eventually become season-ticket holders.
Empty seats don’t have any chance of becoming season-ticket holders.
Next thing, I’m all in for a refurbish of Scott Stadium coming up as soon as possible, while we’re on this. Seatbacks replacing bleachers would be a priority for me, and before you go on about the price, yeah, it’s going to be expensive, but think about what you’re up against here.
I can sit at home and watch any game I want to on a 60-inch TV with surround sound, a stocked fridge in my kitchen, my car parked in my driveway, no belligerent drunks anywhere in the vicinity.
(I’m benevolent with a couple of ciders in me, for what it’s worth.)
I go to Scott Stadium, I have to pay to park, walk a country mile, pay through the teeth for stale popcorn, and there’s a guy in every section yelling “not gay!” at the top of his lungs after touchdowns, because he thinks it’s his constitutional imperative.
And my butt is on a metal bleacher, and if it’s Oct. 15 onward, my butt is cold on a cold metal bleacher.
I don’t know what Carla Williams can do about the impolitic drunks or the parking. The stale popcorn seems like an easy fix.
The bleachers need an upgrade.
And actually, yeah, there are things you can do about the rude fans. NFL teams seem to have figured out how to make it so that security is more than an usher standing at the top of the steps awkwardly checking your ticket every time you come back from the concession stand with an arm full of goodies.
My wife is a VAF donor, sits in the stands most Saturdays. There’s not a one where our trip back home isn’t a recap of the nonsense going on all around her, the issues at concessions, and the bleachers.
I’m just passing this on, in case anybody is paying attention.
We can sit in our ivory towers casting aspersions on the fan base being apathetic all we want, and it’s going to do about as much good as you’d expect when you look at the numbers, which don’t lie.
The football side of this is thisclose to being a well-oiled machine.
The gameday experience, and the marketing, both clown shows.
Fortunately, that can be fixed.
Story by Chris Graham