The Sun Belt ranked ninth out of 10 FBS conferences in average attendance during the 2014 season, according to information recently released by the NCAA.
The Sun Belt, home of Georgia State and Georgia Southern, averaged 18,294 fans per home or neutral-site games. That was slightly more than the Mid-American Conference, which had a greater overall attendance (1.17 million to the Sun Belt’s 950,000), but a lesser average, 15,431.
Dragging down the Sun Belt’s average were two teams that are football-only members: New Mexico State (12,269) and Idaho (12,886), and one full member, Georgia State (15,006). Those team’s averages were among the 10 worst of the 125 FBS schools, which was topped (bottomed?) by Akron’s average of 9,170.
Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb said his goal for this season, which starts with the team hosting Charlotte on Sept. 4, is to exceed last year’s average, which came amidst the Panthers going 1-11. The team has won two games in three years, which contributes to the challenge of getting more people to come to the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome.
“We can do creative things around game day, but we have to give people a reason,” he said. “Atlanta’s a competitive market, but we have a big alumni base and good base of support. It’s a matter of people now saying, ‘Can we win some games? Can we give people a reason to be there?’”
Another part of the challenge is this year there will be no Georgia Southern at the Dome to boost the average. Last year’s game against the Eagles saw the highest announced attendance (28,427) and actual attendance (17,302). The announced attendance was 11,000 more than came to the next-best game, Air Force.
This year’s home schedule doesn’t feature any games with the cache of those against the Eagles and the Falcons. Instead, the Panthers will host the 49ers, Liberty, Appalachian State, Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama and Troy.
Cobb said he and his staff have started a two-pronged, grass-roots approach to try to overcome not having an attendance-boosting game on the schedule.
They are focusing their energy on students, staff, faculty and alumni. Someone in athletics has already meeting with each of the 465 student groups on campus, and athletics is actively trying to engage the alumni base, which was part of the reason for the spring caravan.
“It’s not a lot flash,” he said. “It’s about creating relationships.”
But in the end, it seems that Cobb believes attendance will increase once the winning starts.
“It’s hard for any program that’s developing,” he said. “We are still trying to get into people’s consciousness when they are making weekend plans.
“If we win some games, people will come. I don’t think we are any different than Braves or Tech or Cowboys.”
Of some solace to the Sun Belt, the NCAA doesn’t include Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in its list of Sun Belt schools. Like Charlotte, both were in transition to FBS for the 2014 season and were listed as reclassifying. Including the Mountaineers and Eagles would have increased the conference’s average because the Mountaineers averaged 23,166 per home game and Georgia Southern averaged 21,102 per home game. Their inclusion would have increased the Sun Belt’s average to 18,992.
There are a few home games this year that should help the Sun Belt’s average. Arkansas State will host the SEC’s Missouri and South Alabama will host the ACC’s N.C. State.
The Sun Belt had a couple of interesting non-conference games last year, but they were against two of the ACC’s smallest schools, Duke and Wake Forest. Still when Troy hosted the Blue Devils it resulted in a season-high home attendance of 21,331. A few more than 21,000 attended when Louisiana-Monroe hosted Wake Forest.