Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Houston 52, Tennessee Tech 24, and attendance... Again.

Although the score was probably closer than it should have been - the Coogs really had no business giving up three touchdowns to a middle-of-the road FCS team - the 2015 UH season started with a win last Saturday at TDECU Stadium.

Dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward had an excellent game, completing 21 of 28 passes for 275 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed 13 times for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns. Demarcus Ayers led all receivers with 10 receptions for 121 yards, and Kyle Postma, who is listed as the third-string quarterback on the roster but was added to the wide receiver ranks for this game, impressed with four catches for 82 yards and the Coogs' only passing touchdown. The defense, for its part, held the Tennessee Tech rushing game to less than one yard per carry, and special teams looked good with 138 kick return yards.

There were some problems, however. Notably, multiple breakdowns in the Cougar secondary that allowed Tennessee Tech to score on plays of 71 and 77 yards. The Cougars would end up allowing Tennessee Tech wide receiver Brock McCoin to rack up a jaw-dropping 264 receiving yards. In fairness, it's worth mentioning that one of these long touchdowns occurred in late fourth-quarter garbage time. However, for a secondary that was supposed to be the strength of a defense, this performance is unacceptable - especially against an FCS school - and needs to be addressed immediately. The Cougars also fumbled the ball five times, although only one of those was recovered by Tennessee Tech; bad snaps between the Coogs' freshman center and the quarterback were partly to blame. Running back Kenneth Farrow, who is supposed to be the team's main offensive weapon, carried 11 times for only 49 yards and missed the second half of the game. Finally, the Cougars committed nine penalties, one of which negated a touchdown on a punt return.

All in all, however, it was a a solid win for the Cougars as well as a good start to the Tom Herman era. However, some people are not happy about Saturday's game. Not about the game, mind you, but the announced crowd of 30,479 who were on hand to see it.

One of those is John Royal of the Houston Press, who claims that "TDECU Stadium was disappointingly empty on Saturday night, the crowd of 30,479 falling well below the stadium’s capacity of 40,000." Royal attacks the UH fanbase for failing to sell out the opening game of the Tom Herman era, calling it a "a fickle and nearly extinct beast."

He illustrates his point with a picture featured prominently at the top of the article of a mostly-empty north grandstand of TDECU Stadium, with the caption "the UH fanbase decided to skip Saturday's opening game." However, when one looks more closely, ones sees the UH band drumline on the field and no players on the sideline. In other words, the picture of the stadium was taken well before kickoff, during the band's pre-game performance, and does not accurately depict the amount of people that were present during the game itself. The use of this photo is purposely misleading, and is poor journalism on the part of Royal as well was the Houston Press editors that approved it.

Another media malcontent is Kelsey McCarson, who declares in a article about the game that "Houston's alumni are some of the worst in college football" because the home opener did not sell out. "It’s the alumni’s fault. Period," McCarson writes. "The students were there. The stadium is new. The team looked good. But the house wasn’t full."

Both Royal and McCarson are UH alumni, so I'm sure they want the UH program to do well both on the field and in the stands, and wanted the 2015 season, as well as the Tom Herman era, to open with a sellout.

But the program's achilles heel has always been its attendance. I'm painfully aware of that, and I even graph the team's average attendance after each season:
UH football season wins (magenta bars) and average attendance (blue line) since 1965.
What sticks out in my mind is that 30,479, while not as good as the 40-thousand-plus who showed up to witness the season-opening debacle against UTSA last season, is actually decent considering the program's historical woes at the gate. Only three times since 1990 have the Coogs even averaged 30 thousand fans a season, and for so many years, especially during the Jenkins-Helton-Dimel Era of Suckitide, UH football crowds averaged in the teens to low twenties. Ten years ago, for example, Houston had 19,981 for its opening game against Oregon at Reliant Stadium.* A decade later, the team breaks 30k against Tennessee freakin' Tech... and people are disappointed!

These 30 thousand fans, furthermore, came out even though several other potentially-attendance-sapping events were taking place in Houston that day: the first-place Astros playing at Minute Maid Park, the Aggies and Arizona State drawing about 62 thousand fans to NRG Stadium at the same time this game was playing, the Labor Day Classic between Prairie View and TSU at BBVA Compass Stadium, Rice and Houston Baptist having home games of their own, even the final Mötley Crüe concert in Houston at the Toyota Center. Against that type of competition for the local entertainment dollar, and playing an FCS opponent with no name recognition whatsoever, I think the Cougars held their own.

The program is making progress at the gate.

Fans like McCarson, who have only been attending UH football games since 2006, probably don't have the same kind of perspective that older fans - those of us who sat through Kim Helton's program-destroying incompetence and Dana Dimel's 0-11 season - possess. (Nor, in this case, does McCarson really seem to want to gain such a perspective: when posters on the message board, of which McCarson is a member, pointed the above facts out to him, his response was, "You guys are idiots. I'm out.")

With all that said, 30,479 is not where the UH program ultimately wants to be, especially if it wants to join a "Power 5" conference like the Big XII:
(UH Athletics Director Hunter) Yurachek concedes that the progress the program has made behind the scenes needs to translate into wins on the field in order to bring attendance up to where it needs to be. “Attendance is a big piece. Most Power Five conference schools are selling 25,000 to 30,000 season tickets, and right now, we’re in the 15K range. We need to get that to 20 or 25K,” Yurachek estimates. “On TV, a stadium that’s half full doesn’t show well.”
Furthermore, the school is making a controversially large investment into its athletics program as a whole, one that is almost certainly unsustainable in the long term and will need to be replaced by actual revenue from ticket- and merchandise-buying fans. For those reasons, continuing to grow the program's fanbase is a must. 30,479 is a long way from where the program was and there is reason for optimism, but it is not where UH football needs to be.

In that regard, one thing that was extremely promising to me as I sat in the stands last Saturday was the student section of the stadium. It was packed, and the kids were rowdy. That is the program's future season ticket base, and the school needs to continue in doing the good job it is doing in cultivating it. (There was a time during the Jenkins-Helton-Dimel Era of Suckitude when there was no student section to speak of. I know because I was a student during that time.)

A final thought on Royal's and McCarson's articles: I've never understood the idea that attacking or otherwise complaining about the people who don't show up to the games - whether they be alumni or casual fans - is going to somehow make things better. It might allow people to vent because the team they love is not garnering the support they think it deserves, but I seriously doubt that calling out a group of people for being "fickle" or "the worst" is going to entice them to attend. Has bitching and moaning about attendance ever succeeded in putting one pair of butt cheeks in one seat at one sporting event at the University of Houston? I'm willing to bet not. You entice people by the games by encouraging to come and by giving them a good experience (which includes winning) worthy of their time and money when they get there, not by telling them how lousy they are.

I asked this same question almost nine years ago, after a game against Central Florida at Robertson Stadium.

The announced attendance for that game was 13,242.


*Yes, it was a Thursday night game and a lot of people might have decided to stay home on account of the Katrina evacuees next door at the Astrodome, but still... We couldn't break 20k against the Oregon freakin' Ducks!

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