When last week’s Florida football game started at The Swamp, you wondered if the Gators had accidentally scheduled a spring game instead of Missouri.
The east side of the stadium had so many empty seats it looked like a Thursday night game at Middle Tennessee. Some of those seats filled in, some did not.
Dan Mullen has been pretty vocal about it, both after the game and again Monday at his weekly news conference. He knows that empty seats can influence high school football players who are in attendance and who have heard about what an electric place The Swamp can be.
So it has been a hot button topic all week, especially after Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times did some research and found that it was the smallest Homecoming crowd since the stadium was expanded in 1991.
I heard from fans who went and fans who didn’t go, including one who complained about the heat (it was 68 degrees at kickoff). There are a lot of reasons why this happened and before we get to those reasons let us not forget that if the same crowd that went to the game in Gainesville showed up in Columbia, Missouri or Starkville, Mississippi about 20,000 of them would be turned away.
Certainly, if Florida had beaten Georgia the previous week, it would have been a different kind of crowd. But the Gators did not and Missouri had no conference wins and — as I wrote about this summer — college football is battling a decline in overall attendance.
That’s why you are seeing stadiums go the other way, decreasing capacity to make the experience for the fans more enjoyable.
And why you’ll eventually see that happen in Gainesville.
Florida has been out in front in trying to do different things to draw the fans. Saturday was the debut of a better WiFi system and there have been all kinds of amenities added for each home game.
“Our fan enjoyment committee meets every week,” said Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin. “This isn’t a Florida issue. It’s a nationwide issue. We have to attack it from a lot of different fronts.
“We’ve got to work real hard to add value for people to come to the games.”
Sometimes, it has to feel like a battle that can’t be won. The world is changing. TV ratings for the sport are up and — let’s face it — the casual fan who had tickets for the game could eat them and enjoy numerous big games that were played at the same time.
That’s one reason we saw such a small crowd (although everything is relative).
“There was no one issue,” Stricklin said. “There were a bunch of little issues.”
Here are five:
1. Florida’s loss last week changed everything.
The Gators were eliminated from the East race and any fleeting hopes of getting into the College Football Playoff. Those may have been longshots, but that’s better than no shot.
2. Missouri doesn’t travel.
Not to Gainesville, anyway. It’s 1,007 miles from one place to the other. The Tigers didn’t bring a band and only sold 924 tickets. Nobody’s blaming Mizzou, but if you had a few thousand visiting fans, it would have made a difference.
3. The networks aren’t doing anyone any favors.
I’m not saying that these six-day windows are hurting college football attendance, but they aren’t helping. If you live out of town, like South Florida or out of state, you can’t even plan your weekend until Sunday before the game.
As I Tweeted a couple of weeks ago, it’s the price fans pay for the price the networks pay.
4. The student attendance was down.
It’s an ongoing problem, but you can’t make them go and you can’t make them show up before the middle of the first quarter.
5. And here’s the big one.
Florida football hasn’t been that much fun to watch, especially at the prices. We all know about the record over the last nine years (a somewhat pedestrian 66-44) and we know about the quarterback drought. Here’s a stat that is almost hard to believe.
During the last nine seasons including this one, Florida’s average national ranking in explosive plays (20 or more yards) is 94th. Fans aren’t guaranteed anything special is going to happen on offense and this is a fanbase raised on Steve Spurrier.
One other thing, the league did Florida no favors with its schedule of three games at home, then 48 days with only one home game, then three more home games.
A lot of these are excuses. But a lot of it is reality.
The days when fans just showed up because the home team was playing are over. Opponents matter. The fan experience matters. Winning matters most of all.
There’s nothing embarrassing about 80,017 people showing up for your football game. We’re all just used to something better.
Just know that the day is coming when a crowd like that will mean standing room only.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.