I was worried that, coming of a disappointing 5-7 season in 2010, there would be a drop-off from last year's average of 31,728 fans per game. But excitement generated by the return of Case Keenum as well as a twelve-game winning streak caused the fans to return in 2011, and the Coogs essentially equaled last year's draw with an average attendance of 31,731 fans per game. The Conference USA Championship Game against Southern Miss attracted 32,413 people, which was the largest crowd ever for a Cougar football game at Robertson. (Too bad they didn't get treated to a better game. Yes, I'm still bitter.)
The reason attendance didn't get any higher than that is simple: the Cougars have essentially maxed out their current capacity at 32,000-seat Robertson Stadium. To show this, I've added a gray line to the graph to show the capacity of the venue that the Cougars have played the majority of their home games in since 1965. It shows that the Astrodome, where the Cougars played their home games from 1965 through 1997, had a capacity of 50,000 until the venue's lighted scoreboard was ripped out to make room for more seats prior to the 1990 season. In 1997, the Cougars began playing most of their games in Robertson Stadium and moved there full-time the following year. The stadium originally sat 22,000 fans, but was expanded to a capacity of 32,000 in 1999. As the graph shows, the last two seasons the team's average attendance per game has met that capacity. The program has finally reached the point where it cannot accommodate any more fans in its current venue.
Plans for a larger stadium to replace Robertson have been on the drawing board for years, and yesterday the University of Houston took a major step towards that goal by releasing an official Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to architecture firms interested in designing the facility. The new stadium would have an initial capacity of 40,000, with provisions for future expansion, and construction would begin following the 2012 season.
There's no question that Cougar football needs a new stadium, not just one with more seats but also with better sightlines, amenities and luxury suites. But the biggest obstacle to the new stadium being built remains fundraising. To date only about $60 million of the estimated $120 million needed to construct the facility has been raised. A deal regarding a lead naming rights gift has yet to come to fruition, despite persistent rumors that it will happen soon.
That being said, the fact that the Coogs have maxed out their capacity in their current home is a good problem for the program to have. For so many years the team has struggled with poor attendance; one of the reasons the University of Houston left the Astrodome was that it was simply too large of a venue for the program. Winning and increased local interest in UH football have brought the fans back, and hopefully that trend will continue in the coming years as the program builds on its recent success and begins play in the Big East.