The attendance at University of Akron home football games wasn’t just bad last year, it was the worst among all 125 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
The Zips, who play at 30,000-seat InfoCision Stadium, reported drawing a total of 55,019 fans for six games, according to data the NCAA recently released.
It was the lowest number reported by the university since 2005, when the team attracted 54,464 and played at the decrepit, off-campus Rubber Bowl.
That year, though, the school played only five home games.
The university, and even some fans, blamed the poor turnout on timing, with three games held on fan-unfriendly Tuesday nights, and on bad weather. Not fielding a winning team since 2005 also played a role; last year’s team finished 5-7.
“The quality of the team makes a huge, huge difference and matters a lot in attracting fans,” said Joel Maxcy, associate professor of sports management at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “A noncompetitive team is going to make it hard no matter where you are or what your league you’re in.”
UA didn’t expect such measly attendance when it opened the $65 million InfoCision Stadium to great fanfare in 2009. That first year, the Zips drew 104,293 fans for six games.
But with the university now struggling financially, many people believe the stadium has been a colossal waste of money. With the university subsidizing the football operations by about $8 million, it’s not good that fans and their much-needed cash are staying away from games.
That has forced the university — already making annual debt payments of $4.3 million on the stadium — to dip deeper into its own pocket to drive up attendance artificially.
The NCAA requires universities to average 15,000 fans in actual or paid attendance over a rolling two-year period to remain in Division I. In 2013, the school bought 56,710 tickets valued at $10 each.
It’s a trick that many universities perform. And it also makes UA’s attendance figures yo-yo from year to year.
Every other year, thanks to school-bought tickets, attendance jumps. The reported attendance in 2013 was 107,101 for an average of 17,850.
Even UA President Scott Scarborough, who took over last year, is lukewarm on InfoCision Stadium.
“I would not have built that stadium,” he said, putting extra emphasis on the word “that” during a recent interview with the Beacon Journal editorial board.
UA averaged 9,170 football fans per home game last season, compared with the national Division I home average of 44,190.
Not surprisingly, Ohio State University led the nation with attendance of 744,075 for seven games, an average of 106,296.
Nearby Kent State University reported attendance of 81,263 for six games, an average of 13,544. Kent State said it purchased tickets last year using marketing and licensing money from outside companies but would not say how many.
Even Youngstown State University, which plays in the lower Football Championship Subdivision, reported drawing 84,669 fans for seven games — an average of 12,096.
UA’s attendance figures frustrate longtime fans.
Alumnus Dave LaBate, 61, of Cuyahoga Falls buys season tickets. He said the school thought crowds would flood the games if a new stadium were built — and they did at first.
He’s a big fan of the stadium and the friendly atmosphere.
“But just as quickly as they came in, the program went downhill and the fans went with it,” LaBate said.
Fans suffered through three consecutive 1-11 seasons after the stadium opened.
“I don’t know what it is about Akron,” LaBate said. “If you live in Columbus, you kill to go to an Ohio State game. It’s the way you grow up. That culture doesn’t exist in Akron. I don’t know why.”
UA is looking for a new athletics director, and football attendance — along with hiring, fundraising, budgeting and planning skills — will be “a key performance indicator,” Scarborough said.
“The university benefits most when football, basketball and soccer are strong programs with great game-day experiences and winning records — both on the field and in the classroom,” he said.
The university expects attendance to rebound this year for several reasons.
For starters, five of the six home games will be played on Saturdays and include a Sept. 12 game with the University of Pittsburgh. Last year, the Zips played three of their home games on Tuesdays, thanks to the Mid-American Conference’s television deal with ESPN.
“It’s a great way for us to showcase our football program, but our fans don’t like the weekday games,” UA Senior Associate Athletics Director George Van Horne said.
The school also will benefit from hosting its biggest rival, Kent State. That game will be the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The Kent State game will be known as “Black Frye-day” because former quarterback and NFL player Charlie Frye is coming back to campus. He will be inducted into the football program’s Ring of Honor, and Charlie Frye bobbleheads will be given away.
“He’s excited about that and we’re excited,” Van Horne said.
The university also is taking a tip from the Akron RubberDucks baseball team, which aggressively markets to families.
The school wants to create a family friendly atmosphere and is spending more time at community festivals promoting the games and team.
“We have to be out in the community and be a part of the community every day,” Van Horne said.
The effort already is paying off, he said, with ticket sales at 129 percent of what they were at this time last year. Group ticket sales also are at 47 percent of what they were for all of last year — a positive sign for the school.
UA plans to start marketing its fall sports in July with a billboard campaign, radio campaign and direct mailing.
“We know that people take their eye off Zips athletics in the summer,” Van Horne said. “You’ll start to see us come July 1 market the football program, the soccer program and our other fall sports more.”
UA also has partnered with Northern Ohio Golf Charities on a promotion that it hopes will boost ticket sales and raise money for a good cause at the same time.
Tickets to the Oct. 3 game with Ohio University will be sold for $15 at Acme Fresh Market stores and online at GoZips.com.
Five dollars from every ticket will go toward veterans’ initiatives in Northeast Ohio and scholarships for veterans who attend the university and have exhausted their G.I. Bill benefits.
The goal is to sell 10,000 tickets.
One problem when it comes to football attendance is student apathy.
Whether it’s because there are too many distractions nowadays or they want to study, students, who are paying athletics fees to support the sports programs, aren’t interested in going to games. It’s not a problem unique to UA.
“That’s a trend everywhere,” Maxcy said. “It’s hard to explain.”
The university enrolls 25,865 students, but student attendance was only 11,000 for the entire 2014 season.
UA noted that student attendance hit its second-highest point since 2009.
It came with a price, though.
The university gave away free tuition for the spring 2015 semester to three students who came to the game against Bowling Green. A fourth winner was selected through a social media contest.
That cost the school $16,097.
The scholarship promotion was so well-received that the university is considering doing it again this coming season, possibly at more than one game. The school is looking for sponsors to underwrite the cost of the giveaway, Van Horne said.
Nursing students Chad Hennie, 28, of Rittman, and Rachel Byrd, 31, of Canal Fulton, said they are big football fans, but they admitted that they don’t go to Zips games.
Why? “It’s mainly time,” Byrd said while studying with Hennie in the Student Union.
Asked what could get them to attend games, they mentioned free giveaways. Perhaps even a free jersey for the first 1,000 students, Hennie said.
Both were unaware of last year’s tuition offer.
They also were disheartened to hear that UA’s attendance was worst in the country last year.
“That makes me feel like we need to do some recruiting” [of other students and go to the games], Byrd said.
Season ticket-holder John Shaw, 55, of Green has been going to games since 1969. He’s disappointed that more students don’t attend.
“I think some of that is the nature of what the University of Akron is,” Shaw said. “We’re still, in the eyes of a lot of people, a commuter college. It’s a place you go to get an education as opposed to get the college experience.”
Of course, one thing could change that.
“People want to back a winner,” Shaw said. “We’re desperate for a winner around here.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.