Tuesday, November 28, 2006

UH attendance woes, again

The Coogs are hosting the Conference USA championship game on Friday, and there's concern that the game won't sell out. It would certainly be embarrassing for the University of Houston as well as Conference USA if the nationally-televised game, which is being played in the relatively small confines of Robertson Stadium, did not sell out, but such is the nature of the University of Houston and its lousy fan base.

As of Monday morning, it was reported that only about 10,500 tickets had been sold; Robertson Stadium seats anywhere between 28,000 and 32,000, depending on who you ask, so there's clearly a lot of sales left to be made. Of course, that figure does not include Southern Mississippi's allotment, which went on sale this week. Nor does it take into account the probability that ticket sales will pick up towards the end of this week, as is oftentimes the case for sporting events.

But that hasn't stopped people from speculating and, in many cases, openly fretting about whether the stadium will be full come Friday night. On various UH athletics message boards, more discussion is being devoted to ticket sales than to the game itself.

The local media, likewise, is also getting in on the act. Houston Chronicle sports columnist John Lopez, for example, wrote a blog entry entitled "Why no one seems to care about UH football," decrying the fact that the Coogs are struggling to sell out the most important game they've ever played in Robertson. While he is correct that the Cougars deserve a better level of support than they currently receive, he seems to go to great lengths to make things look worse than they really are:
To have just 10,000 tickets sold five days before kickoff, in a city of nearly five million people, at a school with a student population of more than 35,000 students, is abysmal.
Maybe so. But what Lopez does not mention, however, is that Houston at that point had only had three days - Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - to sell tickets. Last week was Thanksgiving week, and at the time a lot of people's minds were on the holidays, not a football game two weeks away. Ticket sales should pick up this week, and maybe the resulting number of tickets sold won't be as "abysmal" as Lopez (rather prematurely) declares.

Lopez goes on to compare Cougar attendance to attendance at Dynamo soccer games:
Yet the Houston Dynamo had more 20,000-plus crowds (five) at Robertson Stadium than the Cougars (three) this year.
Unfortunately, in his zeal to make Houston's attendance situation look as bad as possible, Lopez leaves out two facts. First, that the Dynamo played over twice as many games (18) at Robertson than did Houston (7); this means that a higher percentage of UH football games (43%) drew over 20,000 fans than did Dynamo games (28%). More importantly, Lopez neglects to mention the Cougars still outdrew the Dynamo on a fans-per-game basis: the Coogs averaged 20,494 fans/game this season; the Dynamo averaged 18,935, according to the MLS website. And that's in supposedly "soccer-friendly" Houston. Perhaps using the Dynamo as a basis of comparison wasn't such a good idea after all, but there's a reason why he specifically mentions them. As to Lopez's hypothesis as to why "no one seems to care:"
I think there remains a very real bias and perception that keeps casual fans from heading to UH to catch a glimpse of a game. Whether that bias is cultural -- i.e., "I'm not parking my car in THAT neighborhood" -- or what, I'm not sure.
Ah, yes, the time-honored (and racially-tinged) "UH is in a bad neighborhood" argument.
Houston fans are picky. Build a nice venue and they will come. The message is clear: Most fans just don't care about UH football in its current state. Or more specifically: Its current place.
Which brings us to the real point of Lopez's writing: he's trying to shill for a new stadium for the Dynamo:
(UH Athletics Director Dave Maggard) should be negotiating with city officials, along with Dynamo president Oliver Luck, about building a nice, new, 35,000-seat Dynamo/UH/ stadium on those parcels of land across US 59 from Minute Maid Park.
Never mind the fact that the neighborhood across 59 from Minute Maid is just as "bad" as the area around UH, or that the University of Houston and the Houston Dynamo have had a rocky relationship regarding the use of Robertson which would likely keep them from collaborating on a new facility, or that a joint soccer - football facility still wouldn't resolve some major issues between the two sports (such as the football markings on the soccer field, or vice versa, that occur when soccer season and football season overlap).

Nice try, Mr. Lopez. But as somebody who lives in "that neighborhood" adjacent to campus, I don't buy it. There are many reasons for Houston's poor attendance, but "the stadium" and "the neighborhood" are not among them. If being in a "good" neighborhood had a positive effect on ticket sales, then why did only 12,867 people - less than any game UH played this year - come out to see a pivotal, bowl-clenching game between Rice and SMU at Rice Stadium last Saturday? And if Robertson is such a poor facility, than why was attendance at UH football games just as lousy back in the days when the Coogs played in the Astrodome?

Another Chronicle sportswriter, Michael Murphy, realizes that the holiday might have had something to do with the fact that ticket sales are slow, but is neverthless is preparing to hurl invective if the game doesn't sell out:
Ticket sales have been slow, but let's give everyone a mulligan since it was Thanksgiving. Will the fans deliver? Do the Cougars get their sellout? [...] What does it mean if they don't? And if not, do I get free rein to lay the rhetorical wood to the non-fans who failed to show up?
But that's the problem, Murph: if they're "non-fans", they won't care about the game or the fact that they didn't show up. And they won't care if a Chronicle writer rips into them, either. It's no different than if somebody ripped into me for not going to see a Houston Baptist University basketball game. I don't really care about the Huskies, I don't go to their games, and I wouldn't care in the slightest if an HBU fan called me out for not supporting them.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: complaining about the University of Houston's attendance problems won't solve them. And lashing out at people who don't care about UH athletics - which in this case, sadly, appears to be most of the citizens of the Houston area - isn't going to accomplish anything. It's only going to create an aura of negativity around UH football even as they are experiencing their most successful season in fifteen years.

But I do have to wonder why the local sports media focuses so much attention on the University of Houston's fan base, or lack thereof. They never seem to be bothered by the fact that the Rockets are near the bottom of the NBA in attendance, or that empty seats at Reliant Stadium are becoming increasingly common as the woeful Texans trudge through yet another losing season, or that Rice has attendance problems that are worse than UH's.

The fact is: Houston is a lousy sports town. The city does not support their teams when they lose, and barely supports them when they win.

Anyway, I'll be there on Friday, sellout or no. Conference USA's bowl pairings were announced today, and the winner of this game will be headed to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis while the loser will be going to the GMAC Bowl in Mobile. I'd much rather go to Memphis, so I'm hoping the Coogs take care of business on Friday.

The Rice Owls will be heading to the New Orleans Bowl to play the Sun Belt champion, either Troy or Middle Tennessee. Not bad, for their first bowl apperance in 45 years. Lori and I had fun when we made the trip to New Orleans in 2002 to see North Texas knock off Cincinnati.

UPDATE: Murph is now reporting that sales have reached 20,000. That's almost ten thousand tickets sold in three days. I'm not worried about there not being a good crowd at this game.


Anonymous said...

O my gosh who are you. Me and all my friends are gonna go and we dont have tickets. WE are students so we automatically get tickets on friday (we have to pay but we gwt em, no question about it). When I say me and my friends you should understand half of the students at Uh which would be 17500 people and the seats occupied friday should amount to about 27500. Is this not enough people for you?

Thomas said...

Re-read my post. I'm not the one worried about how many people are going to be at the game Friday. I'm just expressing my frustration with the local sports media who continually harp on UH's attendance problems.

We will have a decent turnout for Friday night's game. At this point, I'm more concerned about what happens on the field than what happens in the stands...

Go Coogs!