Taking Attendance

Sep 7, 2021

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I've been completely off the Illini grid the last 48 hours. After the run-up to the season - camp coverage, the big preview, two games complete by September 4th - I realized that I hadn't seen my wife very much in five weeks. In the past, when the cost for the preview was "if you appreciate the hard work that went into this, please place some coins in the tip jar", I'd then empty the tip jar and go on a September vacation with my wife. Back then, with a full time job + camp coverage, I really didn't see her the month of August.

We can't really do the September vacation thing now. But with a holiday weekend and her not having to work until Tuesday, we could make Sunday and Monday a real, honest "weekend". Two days where I don't even touch the laptop. (OK, one and a half days. I wrote the "How Long" post Sunday morning.)

But then we spent 36 hours hanging out. Hopped on kayaks for the first time in forever. Ate at one of our favorite restaurants. Saw friends we haven't seen in forever. 4.75 Tom Cruises.

Today, she's back to work and I'm trying to catch up. I'll be CTT-ing all day, so Check The Tape will go up tomorrow (we recognize Labor Day here at IlliniBoard LLC, apparently). This morning, before I get to that, I want to talk football attendance real quick.

Attendance on Saturday: 33,906

Attendance average in 2019 (the last season with fans): 36,587

Attendance average Lovie's first season (2016): 45,644

Attendance average Beckman's first season (2012): 45,564

Attendance average Zook's first season (2005): 47,852

Let's put some context around all of this. First, you might remember that I wrote about attendance just before the Wisconsin game (THAT Wisconsin game) in 2019. We had just lost to Michigan in front of 37,275, a number that would have been hard to fathom in the previous 40 years (37k for Michigan), so I wrote about it. A few paragraphs from that post:

The 2017 season dipped below the 1998 low water mark (1998 average attendance: 39,590; 2017: 39,429) to be the lowest average (paid) attendance since 1970 (37,659). Then, last season beat that number (36,151), meaning it was the lowest attendance since 1962 (35,295). If this year dips below that (and it's quite possible, with Rutgers and Northwestern still on the schedule in November - the last Saturday-after-Thanksgiving Northwestern game in 2017 drew 30,456 paid, so this one will almost certainly be less), then this season will be the lowest attendance in Champaign since World War II.

I need to put that in one paragraph for emphasis. The post-war low mark is 1962 when the average attendance was 35,295. That's one year after the winless season (1961) that Dick Butkus was talking about on stage last Friday. Right now the average attendance is 36,800, and that average will get a boost from a homecoming crowd on Saturday but a dip from both Rutgers and Northwestern, and if it dips below 35,295, it will be the lowest since 1945. And the 1945 attendance was war-related. 1946 saw an average attendance of 59,437, but the year before, in 1945, it was 24,011. So "since the war" will be accurate.

As it turned out, 2019 cleared the hurdle (thanks to the four-game winning streak immediately following that article). Here's the average attendance numbers at the bottom of my "from the end of WWII until today" list:

1970: 37,659
2019: 36,587
2018: 36,151
1962: 35,295
1945: 24,011

Average attendance so far this season after two games: 37,485. So right between 1970 and 2019 if that holds throughout the season. The magic number: we need to average 34,421 over the final five games to stay above 1962. If not, it will be the lowest average attendance since World War II.

Is attendance down across college football? Yes. Nebraska had to have donors buy 2,100 tickets on Saturday to keep their sellout streak alive. And Michigan's streak of games above 100,000 is going to end soon. Attendance was dropping through the second half of the last decade, and when you add in Covid you can see why attendance is low across the board.

But I think the best way to look at this is to look to our peers. I'll use numbers from 2019 here because 2020 had no fans at Big Ten games. Some uncomfortable statistics:

  • Purdue averaged 54,021 during the 2019 season (a season where Illinois went 6-6 and Purdue went 4-8). So roughly 18,000 more fans than Illinois games. The Purdue opener on Saturday drew 47,906.
  • We used to mock Northwestern for their tiny crowds but now they've surpassed us. We averaged 36,587 in 2019; Northwestern averaged 37,736. The days of consistently averaging 20,000 more fans than Northwestern are long gone.
  • We've fallen well behind Minnesota (46,190) and even Indiana (41,244). And those numbers will likely go up given that both teams sold out their openers this season.
  • Rutgers was the only Big Ten school below us in 2019 (30,082), but they also sold out their first game on Saturday, so we're going to be 14th out of 14 this season (for the first time since... 1945 maybe? Perhaps longer than that?)

Please keep in mind where we used to be. In 2010, after the Rose Bowl was followed by two consecutive losing seasons, we dropped from 61,707 in 2008 to 59,545 in 2009 to 54,188 in 2010. When that dropped to 49,548 in 2011 - first time below 50,000 since 2006 - that was discussed as part of the reason Zook was gone. But what we're looking at now (trying to stay above 35,295) is several layers down from that. Put simply, in our bad years, we used to still be 20,000 fans ahead of Northwestern every game. Now we're somehow behind them.

None of this really means anything. I'm not making a statement here. I'm not saying "more fans should be there!" (I think that when we're 2-10) and I'm not saying "Bret Bielema hasn't built fan excitement" (he has, by my observation - the 41k at the Nebraska game would have likely been 28k if Lovie were still the coach). I'm just pointing to where the numbers currently sit. On a Saturday afternoon in the state of Illinois, we've reached the point where more people want to go to a Northwestern game than an Illinois game. When were started that sellout streak in the 1980's and Northwestern was just coming off their 34-game losing streak that stretched across four seasons, I would have bet any amount you wanted that "Northwestern out-draws Illinois" would never be a thing in my lifetime. Yet here we are.

There's only one takeaway, really. And that's "until we win, we'll keep flirting with that 35,295 mark". Wins are the only thing that will fix this. Fans won't jump back in with just a random bowl win here or there. It's going to take back-to-back bowls (or an out-of-nowhere Rose Bowl like 2007) to resuscitate ticket sales.

The students have jumped back in (God bless 'em), selling out the student section for the first time in a long time. But on the east, on the west, and in the horseshoe, we're down to the "you can't make me quit" diehards.

Send wins.


thumpasaurus on September 7, 2021 @ 07:01 PM

I've always prided us on having more resilient fans than you'd think given that the last winning regular season was 14 years ago. I still think that's the case, but now it's finally breaking down. I truly believe it wouldn't take much in the way of genuine hope for Illini fans to sell the stadium out again - see 2016 UNC. However, we've blown our chance at that happening this year.

It's been ten years ago since that Arizona State game that felt like This Is Big Time College Football.

Dman68 on September 7, 2021 @ 07:40 PM

I get the fan apathy when year after year fans don't see a consistent winning product. Why would they want to attend a football game in November when the team has nothing to play for except for pride, it's very cold out, and the promise of a exciting men's basketball season is around the corner. I moved to Champaign 10 years ago. I have a work colleague who is a U of I grad and several times I offered to give him a free ticket to the football games to attend with me. Most of the time he turns me down, and the reasons weren't because he had other plans. In one case, he said he would rather watch Netflix that afternoon. I have season tix to men's basketball games and I made friends with fellow season ticket holders who sit by me. I have offered them free football tickets several times and not once have they taking me up on that offer. Once again, not because they had other plans, just were not interested. I also cringe when I over hear a local ask if a home football game just got played after the game was over. My guess is you would hear that question or have any of the rejection of free tickets in Tuscaloosa, Columbus, Austin, etc. It is sad that gameday in Champaign-Urbana doesn't have the hype it used to have and not the same in the cities I mentioned. I am hoping we can become a Madison. Prior to Alvarez's arrival at Wisconsin, fans at Badger games were sparse. So much so, the famous fifth quarter by the band was created. I am hoping that our program can be the next "Wisconsin" and Illini fans will care about both football and men's basketball.

orangeandblue on September 7, 2021 @ 08:33 PM

Here's the crazy thing. Why buy season tickets? We play Maryland at night next. Perfect for an all day tailgating party followed by some football. And you can get tix on Stubhub for $10. So why buy. Wait and see. Maybe you go maybe you don't. Of course I say that and then I bought season tix.

immortan doug on September 7, 2021 @ 09:12 PM

Aren't Northwestern games just filled with opposition fans who live in Chicago?

Robert on September 7, 2021 @ 10:46 PM

It's probably 20% of every Northwestern crowd (if we want to get picky, that's why our Nebraska game had 8,000 more fans than the UTSA game), but that's always been the case.

Here's the best way to say it, I think:

In 2003, we bottomed out to 1-11. Attendance dropped to an average of 50,961. That same season, Northwestern went bowling and averaged 28,763 fans. "LOL", I said. "They'll always bring in half our crowd."

In 2019, 3-9 Northwestern brought in 37,736 fans per game, while 6-6 Illinois attracted 36,587 per game.

Bear8287 on September 7, 2021 @ 10:49 PM

Interesting point. Certainly a larger population within a 25-mile radius.

If Illinois had the same success that Northwestern has had over the past 14 seasons, it's a pretty safe bet that Illinois would still be outdrawing Northwestern.

This is a program in serious need of rehabilitating. I wanted to initially predict more than 4 wins for this team, but after some of the excellent breakdown of the schedule and opponents performed on this site, while I still hope for better Robert's 4-8 seemed and still seems totally rational.

Am I also the only one who was surprised to see UTSA "Upsets" Illini all over the press? If Illinois hadn't "upset" Nebraska, would those headlines have still been there?

ILLhaveaBrewski on September 8, 2021 @ 12:24 AM

Robert how do we compare to other Big Ten schools in basketball? The end of the Groce years our attendance finally went down to 11-12k a game?

SuburbanIllini on September 8, 2021 @ 12:36 AM

Student section is sold out for Maryland too.

BamaIllini on September 8, 2021 @ 02:57 PM

Isn't that because Student Tickets are free for the Maryland game?

IBFan on September 8, 2021 @ 01:11 AM

I’m not sure how much Covid is hurting overall attendance. I am fully vaccinated but still just a bit nervous....illogical? I don’t know but it just my reality right now. I went, Wife also but friends didn’t go because of Covid and they are dosed. Kids didn’t go either for different reasons. 2 out of 18 people that talked about going went, 8 tickets unused. 1/3 live in Champaign. Crazy

thumpasaurus on September 8, 2021 @ 02:24 AM

every year since 2009 we just get farther and farther from my dream of being able to go to a packed memorial stadium and feel like THIS IS BIG TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL.

got one hit of that dragon again 5 years ago, but that was just a blip. it's otherwise been ten years, and every year it just becomes less and less attainable.

at least i was at the last sellout.

O&B4life on September 8, 2021 @ 03:05 AM

Week after week and year after year, the football program has let down its fanbase. Going to a game is usually an 6+hr investment and close to $30/person cost. There are a lot better ways to spend a Saturday than watching Illinois lose the same game we have for the last 16 years. Like @Robert said in the Friday SOC - we knew what was going to happen. Why go to the game knowing there is an 80% chance you are going to walk out disappointed and frustrated.

The program gave people a reason to find something else to do on fall Saturdays. Now the program is going to have to give people a reason to come back.

thumpasaurus on September 8, 2021 @ 03:11 AM

it's just exhausting emotionally

i'm so tired

Efremwinters84 on September 8, 2021 @ 04:36 AM

I read this comment and had to chuckle. I attended the Nebraska game and had an absolute blast! $30 huh?

$404 airfare to O'Hare; $48 airport parking; $156 car rental from O'Hare; $53 gasoline; $420 hotel (2 nights); $20 game day parking; $70 ticket on the 40 yard line; $100 for two dinners & drinks; $120 tailgating and concessions. Breakfasts were free at the hotel.

Next headed to Charlottesville to do it all again, but this one will be a 12-hour round trip drive. And no --- my son's not on the team, and I'm not a former player. Just a former student and avid fan who got addicted in the 1980's! (Oh, and I have Clemson season tickets which prevent me from attending more Illini games.)

Bielema is the guy.

BriCrozier on September 8, 2021 @ 03:42 AM

It is going to take 3 or 4 straight years of good teams for the "casual" fan to come back with consistency. I think even a 2001 or 2007-like season on its own wouldn't bring fans back consistently.

Ironically, I remember when the Memorial Stadium renovations happened and there was a lot of criticism about the associated lowering of capacity. Imagine how empty Memorial Stadium would look today if it still seated 70K. I know there were some initial discussions during the renovations about what to do with the horseshoe, I would argue that it should be "squared" off and the current 9,800 seats reduced to probably 2,500 or 3,000. Capacity with the horseshoe cut down to 2,500 seats would be 53,480, which honestly feels about right with current attendance trends. The great thing about such a plan is if trends ever reverse and attendance starts shooting up again, the University can then expand the horseshoe back to 9,800 seats or even more if necessary.

uilaw71 on September 8, 2021 @ 12:36 PM

Those of us whose hair is a lot grayer cut our Illini teeth when being at the games (always Saturday at 1) was THE thing to do - even for students. Times change.

Alaskan Illini on September 8, 2021 @ 12:37 PM

Mid-80’s grad, and I was given O&B transfusions during my time there, hence teh O&B in my veins. I was able to attend my first game when the beloved came to UConn 2 years ago, only a two hour drive from me. Previous seasons were not possible for me as I lived in Alaska, but the advent of B1G TV and availability of games on whatever channel they were broadcast gave me my fix for Illini football. I know, I was spoiled by becoming a fan during the White years, but MAN, what in introduction to BIG TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL! Exciting football, competitive year after year up until Mac left. Then 30 years of “is THIS what Illinois football is really like?” The data says “Yes”.

I can understand the dwindling crowds, especially since there are more entertainment options for fans that are in rural areas (the best seats to watch any football game are the ones in front of your 85” HDTV). It probably doesn’t help home attendance when international student numbers more than doubled the last 20 years, now encompassing almost 25% of the UIUC student body (2017 data from https://isss.illinois.edu/download_forms/stats/fa17_stats.pdf, 2003 data from https://archives.library.illinois.edu/erec/University%20Archives/2503810/DMI_Website/statsfa03.html).

Now that I’ve retired, the spousal unit and I have scheduled our first trip back to Memorial Stadium since I graduated in ‘85 for Homecoming to see the Illini play the Badgers. I have no real expectations of anything other than a total beat down, but hey - it could happen!

I L L!

Domillini87 on September 8, 2021 @ 02:38 PM

I graduated in 2010. Live in Mississippi now, but all my family is still in Central Illinois. Like Robert I am also a train guy and typically take the 12 hour trip every labor day weekend and catch the first game of the year. My dad has had a group of season tickets since I was in school so I had him add one this year for me. I was thankful this year for back to to back home games to start the year because I came for both. Loved seeing the student section looking full for both games. We need to keep that going so they can start new families of Illini fans and get those attendance numbers ticking up.

Also have to say Grange Grove has been more active with students these first two games then I remember in the past.

Sweetchuck13 on September 8, 2021 @ 02:40 PM

Illini fans have been teased and fooled so many times in the last 20 years - especially the last 13 or so. I don't think we'll see any meaningful movement in attendance (50,000 or more) until we have at least back-to-back bowl seasons. And attendance always seems to lag on-field performance by at least a year.

As Robert said, I think we're down to the "core" 30,000 or so that will try to attend no matter what the team looks like. It takes more than hype - actual results to drag in anyone else on a regular basis.

BamaIllini on September 8, 2021 @ 03:16 PM

Winning back fans is going to be more difficult going forward. Way, way too many options for people's time. Moreover, Illinois has lost a generation football fans.

jdcoleman7 on September 8, 2021 @ 09:42 PM

I think it is probably worth noting that it rained for like the 4 hours immediately leading up to the game. Anyone that was it’s all on the fence about going, did not go.

rootsports on September 8, 2021 @ 10:29 PM

I am a big Illini fan, not a grad of UI, just a big fan since the 80’s. I normally attend 1-2 football games per year. I live in western Illinois, so I have a 3 hour drive, which isn’t bad. It’s the bleacher seating and weather that keeps me from attending more games. I know bleachers are common throughout NCAAF stadiums. My back just can’t handle that, improve the fan experience and I will hop onboard the season ticket train.

IlliniJedi on September 10, 2021 @ 02:45 AM

I had season tickets my freshman year in 1995, Hardy and Rice's last season. Was in Block I in 1996 (still have the T-shirt, top ten reasons to be in Block I, #1 Gumby!), and Tepper oversaw lots of losing. No more season tickets for me. Haven't been back since homecoming 2001. My excuse now is that I live in California.

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