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Nonprofit tailgate group hoping to grow Maryland football fan base by going young

Like many Maryland football fans, Ben Page often looked across the stadium and saw a lot of empty seats on game day, especially in the upper deck.

“One of the things we see on the message boards and hear at the games is, ‘Why can’t we get people in the stands?’ ” Page said this week.

Recalling what the atmosphere was like starting with the team’s resurgence under Ralph Friedgen from 2001 to 2003, Page decided last month to do something about it.

“Several times, I would hear folks say, ‘Why don’t we just give kids tickets and let them show up? They’d make the money on concessions stands,’ ” Page said.

Through his newly established nonprofit called the Old Line Tailgating Club, Page will be bringing 500 young fans to the Terps’ 2018 home opener against Temple on Saturday.

The youngsters are members of the Boys and Girls clubs in Prince George’s and Washington counties, as well as part of a sports organization in Queen Anne’s County.

There are also plans in place to bring more young fans — and possibly future Maryland football players — from youth organizations in Baltimore, Howard and Frederick counties — to the Illinois game on Oct. 27.

“I talked with the president of the Prince George’s County Boys and Girls Club and they always wanted Maryland to be more involved with them, and they haven’t felt that community outreach,” Page said.

In recent years, part of the problem for Page and some of his friends has been getting support from the university, in particular from the football coach.

Ever since the Maryland Gridiron Network that Friedgen and his wife Gloria established at their alma mater was disbanded in 2016, Page and others have been trying to find a way for the mid-level and low-level donors to get involved with the team.

By the time DJ Durkin arrived after the 2015 season, the MGN was already being phased out. A group that once boasted more than 1,000 members and had regular events such as “Breakfast With The Fridge” talked more about the good old days than the future.

“It started to dissipate over the years because of a lack of support from Randy,” said Page, a 2001 Maryland graduate who lives in Thurmont. “Randy drove that bus into the ground.”

Said Kevin Hornbeak, a 2003 Maryland graduate who lives in Darnestown and helped Page get the new club started: Edsall “didn’t want to interact with what I would say [is] the common fan.”

Like most coaches at Power 5 schools, Edsall was more interested in growing the number of big-dollar donors through what became the Red Coat Society. Durkin followed suit with the establishment of The Champions Club, with members committing at least $25,000 annually for five years.

Page said the timing for his organization’s efforts is good, despite the fact that he received a letter confirming the group’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status on the same day last month that ESPN reported allegations of a “toxic” football culture under Durkin, who was placed on administrative leave the following day.

“I talked to my wife and some of my friends — [and asked], ‘Is this the right time?’ ” Page said. “I had put so much energy into it. If there is a time that Maryland should be doing something out of their norm, giving free tickets or something like that, this is the year. And the product on the field is significantly improved.”

Page added that he’s been “pleasantly surprised” that the athletic department has been “working with us to help facilitate our growth” after not showing much interest in the past. Page said the indifference stemmed from what might have been perceived as competition with the Terrapin Club.

“I don’t want this to come off as us versus them because I’m still a Terrapin Club member,” said Page, whose club is not sanctioned by the university. “The last thing I want to do is create bad blood between the Terrapin Club and us.”

Associate athletic director Matt Monroe, who heads up Maryland’s ticket operations, said Friday, “I think it’s fantastic from a perspective of bringing kids to games. If we can have them have a great experience when they’re here, show them a good time, they can become fans for life and start building a sense of camaraderie and community."

Monroe said the athletic department has worked with other groups to “get fans excited, especially youth,” including programs at elementary schools offering two-for-one deals or free admissions for kids. Since 2016, the Garrett A. Turner Foundation has run a program called “Terps of Tomorrow,” bringing a group of kids to the campus the day of a game.

“They get a feel of the campus, they’re able to get a tour of some special places on campus. It’s not just the game itself,” Monroe said, adding the event will be held for this year’s Illinois game as well.

Despite having just 20 full-paying members whose dues are $350 annually for an individual and $700 per family, the Old Line Tailgating Club has raised $10,000 in its first 40 days with the help of nonmembers contributing to the club’s cause.

Hornbeak, who said he is just as comfortable hanging out with “Joe Fan at the coach’s radio show and at the tailgates” as he is hobnobbing with the high-level donors in the luxury suites, is trying to help make Maryland a better football program.

“We’re trying to pick up all those little in-between areas that the athletic department can’t do,” Hornbeak said. “Going out and shaking trees and say, ‘Can you bring some kids to the games?’ One way or the other, the money is going to go back to the school.”

Though the Old Line Tailgating Club has aspirations of taking its members to road games and contributing financial support to the team, all the money this year will go toward “putting kids in the seats,” Page said.

Recalling going to his first college game with his father at Purdue while growing up in New Palestine, Ind., interim coach Matt Canada likes the idea of getting kids exposed to Maryland football.

“I think it’s very important to have young people around football any way we can,” Canada said this week. “It certainly benefits our program for them to come and see what we have to offer, but it also benefits those young people. So we’re excited that anybody is going to help get them to the game, be around college football. It’s the greatest game going.”

Kasim Hill hopes that Saturday's home opener draws a decent-sized crowd.

Asked what he would say to the fans about supporting a team that has gone through such turmoil over the past few months, the redshirt freshman quarterback said, “It would definitely be big to us if we got a lot of support from the fans, from the students especially. It would mean a lot.”

Monroe said he expects a crowd of around 33,000 or 34,000 for the home opener.

“I think the students are excited,” he said. “We should have a really good student crowd tomorrow. It should be packed in the student section.”

Monroe was unable to provide the number of season tickets sold this season, but said, “I can tell you that sales have definitely picked up since we knocked off Texas and the kind of excitement of what’s going on in the program through our first couple of games. I think we can expect some good crowds at home this year.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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