Entering Arizona’s 2005 football season, a grim period in which the Wildcats had gone 19-35 and fired two coaches, a most unexpected thing happened: Tucson fans bought it.
Over the next six years, Arizona celebrated home football games with unprecedented faith. Here’s what the UA averaged at Arizona Stadium from 2005-10:
It’s not that Arizona became a national power. It was a .500 program, exactly 37-37 in those years of box office success. The Wildcats were never seriously involved in the Rose Bowl chase, although they twice went 8-5.
They were just good enough to get you to forget about basketball season for a few weeks and buy a ticket.
The Wildcats of ’05-10 had two prolific passers, Willie Tuitama and Nick Foles, but it didn’t compare to the wow-factor created by Khalil Tate the last four weeks.
Yet the UA football teams of 2005-10 drew what I consider to be 18 home sellouts — crowds in excess of 55,000 — and for six years didn’t have a game that drew fewer than 47,402 fans.
Now the Wildcats average 42,961.
I suspect UA athletic director Dave Heeke’s in-box is full of complaints, grumbles, suggestions and reflections on how to fix the shrinking fan base of Arizona football, because in a 12-hour period from Sunday morning to Sunday night my email browser set an unofficial record for messages labeled “UA attendance.”
Yes, the games are too long and they start too late. That’s not going to go away. The Pac-12 feebly addressed the length-of-games issue by attempting to shave five minutes off halftime on Pac-12 Network telecasts.
Here’s what UA fans told me about the experience at Arizona Stadium:
- “As longtime season-ticket holders we are getting quite upset with the noise level in the stadium. The ‘music’ is terrible, the volume is ear-shattering and the announcer yelling ‘THAT’S ANOTHER ARIZONA FIRST DOWN!’ is just about more than we can take. Next year there may be two more season-ticket holders who opt out due to noise and choose to watch from home where we can control the volume.”
- “I had been uprooted from my old seats in the northwest section when the (Lowell-Stevens facility) was built, and I chose not to pay the higher prices, or be uprooted and put in the nosebleeds in the upper deck. I didn’t renew. I planned to go to the Washington State game but the tickets online were from $65-$125. That was way too much for me and my family.”
- “I no longer will spend money to sit on those hard bench seats with not enough space to stretch your arms and legs.”
- “I stopped going last year when the price of my ticket went to $125 per game. If you want season tickets they make you pay through the nose; if not, they stick you in the hinterlands.”
- “It’s a combination of things: no beer, cash-only on food purchases, tiny restrooms and poor Internet service.”
- “As a family man with a not so huge income, I looked into single game tickets at the beginning of the season. Decent seats were $65 for single-game tickets. I also split a season of basketball tickets with another guy that runs me about $600, so I made the decision at the beginning of the season that football was out of my budget. Why pay $65 when I can watch from the comfort of my home and enjoy a few adult beverages?”
- “I told Dave Heeke that this annoying loud stuff they call music all the time isn’t helping. I told him he’s trying to appeal to the very kids that aren’t coming. My suggestion was to use these endless and long timeouts for more football information. I saw one score on the video board last night. Why not Pac-12 and national scores? Why not the Pac-12 standings?”
- “Last year I went to a couple of games. From the fireworks to the kiss-cam videos, the game seems to be secondary, as if to entertain the fans as children who need noise and lights to distract them. It’s much louder than it was only a few years ago. I’ve had enough.”
- “I know some older fans that had season tickets for a long time gave them up because they felt like it was so noisy with the new production having really loud hip-hop playing in between every play and reducing the amount of numbers that the traditional band plays. Maybe if they just dial the speaker down a little bit.”
- “I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon but I’m hesitant to renew my season tickets because the game experience isn’t as fun as it used to be. Not because the ‘Cats have struggled but because of the late starts, long games, Friday dates, loud PA music and lack of involvement by the band. I understand the need to create an atmosphere for the students but I also think some consideration needs to be given to families and older folks.”
What’s the solution to all this? Is Arizona affected more than most schools by an aging audience, one that has disengaged because of late kickoffs and loud music? Or do Millennials, those in the shrinking ZonaZoo audience, have a declining attention span that doesn’t mesh with live sporting events?
If Khalil Tate can’t sell a ticket, who can?
Over the next few years, Heeke plans to remake Arizona Stadium and improve fan amenities and perhaps chop 5,000 seats from capacity.
That would improve intimacy and eliminate a lot of embarrassing empty seats, but that’s only half of the issue. If winning and excitement — Arizona went 4-0 in October for just the second time in school history — doesn’t sell tickets, what does?
Tickets for the 8:15 p.m. home finale next week against Oregon State range from $11-$100. The cheapest seat in the roomy and restroom-friendly north end zone is $58.
College football is no longer a bargain, in Tucson or on other Power 5 conference campuses. There are no more “Knothole Clubs” of the ‘70s and ‘80s where kids got in for $2.
And it’s not just a Tucson problem. After reviving its season with rousing victories over Oregon, Washington and Utah, Arizona State drew just 53,446 against USC last week. That left about 4,000 empty seats at Sun Devil Stadium.
ASU’s home attendance average is a mere 51,114 despite having home games against USC, Oregon and Washington.
Good football, the aura of a Homecoming weekend, and the possibility that you might see Arizona’s quarterback create a highlight video hasn’t been enough to get a guy to dig into his pocket, get off the couch and get to Arizona Stadium.
If Khalil Tate can’t sell a ticket, who can?