Georgia State’s football program has fallen behind other recent start-up programs in more than wins and losses. The Panthers trail in average home attendance, season-ticket sales and student attendance.
Playing its third season of football, Georgia State has averaged 13,298 fans this season through three home dates, punctuated by the program-worst 9,476 who showed up to watch Saturday’s loss to Richmond at the Georgia Dome. That average trails:
Not coincidentally, Georgia State’s attendance has declined as losses have mounted. The Panthers have lost their four games this season and 12 of their past 15, underlining the issues that a school with an enrollment of 32,000 can have trying to attract interest in a team that’s not winning.
“Our athletics department is working hard to engage fans and provide a compelling game-day experience,” Georgia State President Mark Becker said in an email. “There’s more work to be done, and it is going to take time to get it done.
“College football is not a ‘build it and they will come’ proposition; winning matters.”
The images of a mostly-empty Dome may not be as troubling an issue as what the empty seats could mean for Georgia State’s FBS membership if attendance doesn’t increase.
The NCAA mandates that FBS teams have an average home attendance of at least 15,000 once in a sliding two-year window. Georgia State is playing an FCS schedule as it continues the first year of its two-year transition to FBS, but its two-year window began this year. Failure to meet that minimum this season or the next could result in a 10-year probation for the school. Failure to meet the attendance minimum within that probationary period could result in a bowl ban.
The NCAA doesn’t disclose if it has punished a university for failing to meet the minimum. Idaho has failed to meet the minimum each of the past three years, but an official said the school hasn’t been banned from participating in bowls. Ball State was placed on a bowl restriction after it failed to meet the minimum in 2009 and ’10. It met the minimum in 2011.
Attendance isn’t a new issue for Georgia State, though it wasn’t as worrisome the previous two years because the Panthers weren’t playing on the FBS level.
In 2011, Georgia State averaged 14,286, including 26,273 at the opener. In the remaining five home games, average attendance was 11,888.
In 2010, its inaugural year, Georgia State averaged 16,750, including 30,237 at the opener. In the remaining six home games, average attendance was 14,502.
Athletic director Cheryl Levick said last week that patience will be needed as the program continues to grow.
“We are building a base, that base keeps coming back,” Levick said after the game against UTSA. “It won’t be long before this place is full. I believe that. We’ve got to produce on the field to make sure the audience increases. I’m not giving up. We’re never giving up.”
The on-field results and attendance are galling to some Georgia State fans, whose team has an overall record of 9-17. Old Dominion is 31-8 and made the FCS playoffs last season. It will join Conference USA next year. UTSA is 8-6 and also will join Conference USA. South Alabama is 24-7.
Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson said Georgia State’s fans shouldn’t give up hope as they prepare to enter that conference, offering an anecdote during a visit two weeks ago.
Previously commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference, Benson said he estimated 15,000 fans may have attended the first conference game he attended, at Boise State in 2001. He said there was no pregame atmosphere. The Broncos now are one of college football’s more popular teams and had an average attendance of more than 34,000 last season.
“They win; next year they win … it doesn’t happen in one year,” he said. “When you start from Ground Zero, it makes it even harder. Your fan base started at zero.”
There are reasons other than losing to explain the declining attendance at Georgia State.
One is geography, which affects the number of visiting fans who attend. For seven more games, Georgia State plays in the Colonial Athletic Association, whose next-closest football-playing member is more than eight hours away by car. By comparison, four Sun Belt schools, including South Alabama, are within a five-hour drive of Atlanta. Becker said school officials expect attendance to increase when teams play in the Sun Belt.
Another issue is heritage. Georgia State’s athletic programs don’t have a tradition of consistent success, as Benson noted. Therefore, the school has yet to fully develop an on-campus atmosphere for athletics.
Dorms are another element that affects attendance. Though Georgia State has an enrollment of 32,000, it has 4,000 dorm beds. A few hundred students showed up for Saturday’s game, lowering the season average to 1,861, which has decreased from two years ago when an average of almost 3,500 attended the games. By comparison, South Alabama had averaged 2,200 students before last weekend’s games, UTSA 3,400 and ODU 3,150.
Lastly, entertainment alternatives are an issue. On Saturday, Georgia State competed against not only the long-established and more popular football teams at Georgia and Georgia Tech, who played at home, but also against the Tour Championship at nearby East Lake, and Music Midtown at Piedmont Park.
“We’re not foolish enough to think that, in this market, if we don’t play well, everyone is going to keep coming,” coach Bill Curry said.
The entertainment alternatives could be considered one of the reasons Georgia State has sold 4,025 season tickets this year. By comparison, South Alabama has sold more than 8,300, UTSA slightly more than 13,000 and ODU more than 14,000.
Ticket prices may partially explain why Georgia State trails its peers. The average cost of a single-game ticket is more expensive than the other three program’s. However, Georgia State says that price is cheaper than its in-state competitors. The markets are also different.
The players are aware of the rows of empty seats during the games. But they say they just try to focus on their jobs.
“We definitely notice,” running back Donald Russell said. “We could use support, but we have to win to get the fans back into it.”
Four of a kind
Attendance and ticket prices for four programs that recently started football:
2012/Georgia State/ODU/UTSA/So. Alabama
Average home attendance/13,298/20,068/28,079/16,190
Season tickets sold/4,025/14,200/13,000/8,319
Avg. student attendance/1,861/3,150/3,427/2,200
Cheapest single-game ticket*/$20/$26/$12/$10
Average single-game ticket/$37/$26/$28.50/$15
Most expensive single-game ticket/$60/$27/$45/$20
Cheapest season ticket/$75/$127/$50/$60
Average season ticket/$88/$157/$235/$77.50
Most expensive season ticket**/$150/$157/$350/$100
*doesn’t include discounts for military, faculty, etc. Students get in free.
** doesn’t include the donation to the athletic fund.
Note: Information provided by the schools’ sports information departments.
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu