HANSEN

Greg Hansen: Working the UA crowd

Rodriguez hustling to fill seats, knowing winning will be key
2012-08-21T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Working the UA crowdGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 21, 2012 12:00 am  • 

I was driving with the windows down, 72 degrees in Winter Park, Colo., when an unfamiliar number from the 520 illuminated my cell phone. I answered anyway.

"This is Rich Rodriguez and it's crunch time,'' the voice said. "I wanted you to hear this from me: I know you recently decided not to be a season ticket holder but we need you back. We're changing the culture here and have some aggressive goals. ''

That's pretty impressive from a telemarketer with a famous football name.

On the last day of summer vacation, the UA tracked me down, even though my only presence in their computer is a single end zone ticket I have been buying for my mother-in-law for the last 10 years.

Alas, she has moved to St. George, Utah, and Arizona Stadium's 2012 bottom line will not include my check for $165.

Unlike the SEC, football attendance is uneven and performance-based in all Pac-12 precincts. The mighty Ducks of Oregon last week announced their streak of 82 consecutive sellouts, dating to September 1999, is in jeopardy. More than 5,000 tickets remain for their Sept. 1 opener against Arkansas State.

Could it be that the cost of a single-game ticket ($66) and the fifth consecutive year of price adjustments - and a nonconference schedule of Arkansas State, Tennessee Tech and Fresno State - have anything to do with it?

If tickets aren't selling in Eugene, everyone in the league should be concerned.

USC averaged just 74,806 last season, down almost 15,000 from the Pete Carroll glory days. Arizona State will soon abandon its effort to fill 71,000 seats at Your-Name-Here Stadium, decreasing capacity by perhaps 15,000. The Sun Devils have averaged just 48,556, 47,942 and 59,004 the last three seasons.

Arizona has been so aggressive in attempt to sell football tickets (and change its image) that on Saturday it dispatched RichRod and 11 players on a caravan, door-to-door, rewarding old-line fans with hand-delivered ducats.

One smiling fan was pictured sitting in his living room, sharing sodas with Wildcats Mark Watley, Terrence Miller, Lamar De Rego and Taimi Tutogi.

(Oops. Hope that's not an NCAA violation).

This is not unfamiliar territory for Rodriguez. In his first season at West Virginia (2001), he found that Mountaineer fans were a lot like Arizona fans.

Under Don Nehlen, whose WVU career (.597 winning percentage) was eerily similar to that of Dick Tomey at Arizona (.583), the Mountaineers averaged 51,572 at Pusker Stadium in Nehlen's last season, leaving 13,000 empty seats per opening.

WVU was UA and UA was WVU in the 1990s.

Rodriguez's first team fell back, averaging 48,165. It was a grind. Rodriguez then went to 52,532 and 52,205. Mountaineer fans, like those in Tucson, are fans of winning. In 2000, they filled the old stadium, 64, 424 for Notre Dame. Two weeks later 40,389 showed up to watch the East Carolina game. Sound familiar?

In 1980, Arizona drew 56,211 for Notre Dame. A week later, against No. 2 UCLA, it drew 42,876.

Under Rodriguez's command, WVU figured out that more seats are not necessarily better. When the school did a multimillion-dollar facility makeover in 2004, it eliminated 4,000 seats. By then, Rodriguez had it rolling; WVU averaged more than 56,000 in each of Rodriguez's last four seasons, capped by a sellout season, 60,401, in his farewell tour

Arizona Stadium expanded to 56,000 seats in 1976. It was a bold statement from a school that had never averaged more than 38,000, but it seemed to tie cleverly into the growth of the Tucson valley.

The greater Tucson area, about 1.1 million people, has more than doubled since the 1976 expansion but Arizona Stadium is still too big. Since joining the Pac-10 in 1978, Arizona has sold out just 38 (of 228 games) and only in Desert Swarm's final season, 1994, did it average at capacity (56,562).

Two years later it was down to 46,935 and then to 40,538, as Jim Livengood began planning Tomey's exit, believing that the torpor around UA football was related to Tomey's personality.

Now Rodriguez is asked to clean up Livengood's mess.

It's possible that the Wildcats will fill all the seats for games against USC and ASU this season, and I believe that if Matt Scott is good enough on opening night against Toledo, that Arizona will have a capacity crowd for the Sept. 8 game against Oklahoma State.

That wouldn't be changing the culture, not yet. But it would be the most tangible, good-faith gesture that long-suffering UA football fans believe Rodriguez can do for Arizona what he did for the once-sleepy football program in Morgantown, W.Va.

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