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Provo • After roughly 5,840 football tickets went unsold for BYU's home opener against Houston, coach Bronco Mendenhall half-jokingly suggested he was disappointed the Thursday night game televised by ESPN wasn't a sellout at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Cougars were 2-0, freshly ranked, and coming off a 41-7 beatdown of Texas.
"Where is everybody?" Mendenhall asked after 57,630 fans showed up on a night BYU paid tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and members of the U.S. Armed Forces. He then said if the 63,470-capacity stadium wasn't full for Virginia on a Saturday afternoon a week later, "I am going to have my feelings hurt."
The nationally ranked Cougars drew 59,023 for the Cavaliers, and Mendenhall wondered aloud why they were nearly 4,500 fans short of a full house. He downplayed his disappointment by noting that he got over it when he got home and his wife had a pot of his favorite chili ready for him to devour.
But there it is. Through two games, BYU is averaging 58,327 fans per game, a number that more than half of the 123 top-tier football schools around the country would gladly take. But those crowds came against two of the stronger opponents on the home schedule.
The Cougars expect a sellout or close to one on Friday when they play host to in-state rival Utah State and retire Jim McMahon's jersey at halftime. But what happens when UNLV and Savannah State visit in November?
Revenue still steady
"Are we concerned? Yeah, just like everybody else in the country is concerned," said Duff Tittle, BYU's Associate Athletic Director for Communications, noting college football attendance has declined nationally.
Generally, he said, "our overall numbers are good, as far as the revenue the university is bringing in. That part, we feel real comfortable with."
Revenue translates into the bottom line, but sellouts bring more attention and more prestige. BYU hasn't filled LES since the start of the 2013 season when it hosted Utah and Texas back-to-back. The Virginia game marked the sixth straight non-sellout.
The Cougars, who consider anything over 63,000 a full house, have sold out just six of their 21 games since becoming a college football independent prior to the 2011 season. Sellouts were routine from 2007-09 when Mendenhall had the Cougars rolling in the Mountain West Conference.
Tittle disputes that football independence and the sometimes uneven home schedules that come with it has put a dent in BYU's turnstile count. Season ticket sales, he notes, are down only slightly, by a couple of hundred tickets this season.
So what's the problem?
Where are the students?
Tittle knows the answers as much as anyone. He has sat through every athletic department meeting about BYU football attendance over the past 10 years.
He says the reasons for the recent downturn are complicated, but noted that one factor stands out.
Student attendance, Tittle said, is way down. And it is not a problem unique to BYU.
"Generally, student attendance is down at every school in the country," he said.
Average student attendance is down 7.1 percent nationwide since 2009, according to research done by The Wall Street Journal, which analyzed records from 50 public schools with FBS football teams. Overall, average college football attendance at FBS schools has dropped just 0.8 percent since 2009, the Journal reported.
Interestingly, the number of BYU students attending games hasn't dropped all that much; It's the other guys who aren't coming.
BYU used to provide a way for students at nearby schools such as Utah Valley University, Snow College, Salt Lake Community College, Provo College and Stevens-Henager College to purchase cheap tickets to BYU games and sit in the student section, now called the ROC (Roar of Cougars).
However, the school went to a new online-only system a few years ago where all-sport passes could only be purchased by those with BYU student identification cards due partly to folks abusing the system to get cheaper tickets. As a result, it got more difficult, but not impossible, for those other students to now get tickets.
"So that has caused our numbers to go down by a few thousand in the number of ROC passes sold," Tittle said. "Our student numbers are down about 3,000 to 5,000 seats."
Even with the recent drop, BYU continues to rank in the top 30 nationally in attendance; It was 28th last year (61,225 average), 26th in 2012 (61,161) and 26th in 2011, its first year as an independent (60,265). It has by far the best attendance of any non-Power 5 conference school.
But BYU does face challenges in retaining its fan base beyond the flagging student numbers.
Tittle notes that 35 percent of BYU's season ticket holders come from north of Utah County, and making it to weeknight games that start anywhere between 6 and 8:30 p.m. is difficult. They play more of those types of games as an independent.
And while the school's contract with ESPN brings significant revenue and regular national television exposure, there is a downside.
"We have to acknowledge that it may be easier to sit at home and watch it on a 60-inch television," he said.
Finally, there is the increased competition for family entertainment dollars, the downward turn in the economy, and BYU having moved away a few years ago from marketing discounted tickets to local LDS wards. Instead of church groups, BYU offers closed promotions to groups such as the Boy Scouts of America, military members and their families, and corporations that sponsor BYU athletics.
BYU is trying hard to make the LES game-day experience more appealing. The school is in the midst of what Tittle calls "a massive project" to bolster wireless service in the stadium.
"People want that same social media experience, and that rich hand-held technology experience, at the games like they get at home," he said. "We hear that a lot. It's a huge challenge to deliver that."
Now, if they can just get those students back.
"On that, we are all in the same boat," Tittle said.
BYU football attendance
Year Affiliation Avg. Att. Nat. Rank
2014 Independent 58,327 (2 games) N.A.
2013 Independent 61,225 28th
2012 Independent 61,161 26th
2011 Independent 60,265 26th
2010 Mountain West 61,381 27th
2009 Mountain West 64,236 27th
2008 Mountain West 64,102 27th
2007 Mountain West 64,497 27th
2006 Mountain West 60,524 26th
2005 Mountain West 58,204 32nd
Note: Capacity from 2005 to 2009 was 64,045; capacity from 2010 to present is 63,470
BYU attendance as an independent
Year Opponent Attendance
2014 Virginia 59,023
2014 Houston 57,630
2013 Idaho State 58,645
2013 Boise State 62,954
2013 Georgia Tech 60,320
2013 Middle Tenn. 58,763
2013 Utah 63,470
2013 Texas 63,197
2012 Idaho 61,009
2012 Oregon State 63,489
2012 Utah State 63,086
2012 Hawaii 62,022
2012 Weber State 60,314
2012 Washington 57,045
2011 New Mexico St. 57,134
2011 Idaho 57,770
2011 Idaho State 60,043
2011 San Jose State 59,782
2011 Utah State 63,513
2011 Central Florida 59,874
2011 Utah 63,742
Note: BYU officials consider anything over 63,000 a sellout
Utah State at BYU
O Friday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Utah State at BYU
O Friday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN