BOCA RATON Florida Atlantic President Mary Jane Saunders is not concerned about lack of attendance when FAU's new football stadium opens Oct. 15.
"Everybody is going to come to these games," Saunders said last week during the ceremonial first lighting even at the $70 million stadium on the north end of campus. "You go to one game and you are going to be want to be part of the whole thing."
But there is a cautionary tale 1,017 miles to the north that belies that "build it and they will come" belief.
The University of Akron opened a new on-campus stadium in 2009 after playing for 68 years six miles away at the Rubber Bowl.
InfoCision Stadium seats 27,000 and cost $61.6 million, but the Zips attracted an average of 10,185 fans last season, causing the university to shuffle money around to pay off the $3.15 million annual debt payment.
"Quite frankly our product hasn't been very good on the field so we are going through a transition time with our program," Akron Athletic Director Tom Wistcill said. "We have been starting from scratch."
Akron was 1-11 last year, and 3-9 in 2009, the first year in the stadium, when they averaged 17,382.
FAU has been playing at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, 15 miles from its Boca Raton campus, and averaged 14,025 last season.
"We know there will be that curiosity factor that will get people to the stadium that first year," FAU Athletic Director Craig Angelos said. "But you do need a quality product on the field to keep them coming back."
FAU finished 4-8 last season, and was picked to finish last in the Sun Belt this season, which is one reason why Angelos has put off discussing a new contract for coach Howard Schnellenberger until after the season.
Akron, which has been playing football 100 years longer than FAU, has not had a winning season since 2005.
Wistrcill said winning is one factor in driving attendance.
"There is the game day atmosphere that you create. Making people feel welcome. Provide them great places to sit and tailgate," Wistrcill said. "Fans want a return on their investment of time and money."
Akron planned on an average attendance of 15,000 a game when creating its financial plan for the stadium, and the sagging attendance is what created the shortfall in the budget.
"We set an aggressive number," said Wistrcill, who was hired one month before the stadium opened and was not involved in the planning. "I would love to think we can get to 20,000."
FAU went for a more conservative number, and will need to average 12,000 paid tickets per game to hit its financial target.
"We are comfortable with that," Angelos said. "We averaged more than that at Lockhart, which was not a desirable location for a lot of our fans."
FAU players understand that success on the field will mean fewer empty seats.
"The only way we are going to fill this stadium up is by winning," running back Alfred Morris said.
Before coming to Akron, Wistrcill had been an associate athletic director at Minnesota, and was involved in the planning and construction of TCF Bank Stadium, which opened on the same day as Akron's InfoCision Stadium.
TCF Bank Stadium also brought the Golden Gophers back to campus, as they had been playing in the Hubert H. Humphrey MetroDome in downtown Minneapolis since 1982.
"College sports is all about being on campus," Wistrcill said. "The alumnae can come back and pretend they are in college for a day."
After averaging a sellout of 50,805 in 2009 in its first year when Minnesota went 6-6, attendance at TCF Bank Stadium was 49,513 last year when the Golden Gophers went 3-9.
Coach Tim Brewster was fired seven games into the season, and Jerry Kill was hired in December.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun