UCF, USF push to attract more fans on game day

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Outside of the scoreboard, the most important figures for the UCF and USF football teams will be the number of fans sitting inside of Raymond James Stadium Saturday afternoon.

No game on the schedule stirs more passion among fans from both schools. As a result, the number of fans in seats sends a message to the national college football audience — and TV Networks - what rivalry week can looks like in the growing American Athletic Conference.


"It's important that we develop our fan bases. There's that old saying, it's not the mark, it's the mark that you deliver and that's true of attendance and TV and ratings," said AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco. "We have some of the biggest and best markets in our conference, but we've got to continue building the fan bases and building TV ratings bases, it's that simple. I think it is something people watch when they judge our conference."

The AAC has unique characteristics, with most of the league's teams located in major metropolitan cities unlike the small college towns that have helped schools in the juggernaut SEC and Big Ten thrive.


Resort cities such as Orlando and Tampa offer inherit advantages for recruiting purposes, but those same privileges can add challenges when it comes to attracting more fans to sit inside a stadium during weekends.

Even though USF ticket sales are up by 42 percent overall this season from 2015, according to athletics director Mark Harlan, the Bulls have seen their share of struggles in converting the announced attendance based on tickets distributed to the actual number of fans in the stadium.

USF saw its lowest homecoming turnout with just 16,585 fans in the stadium, according to the Tampa Sports Authority, despite boasting arguably the best team in school history. The Bulls enter Saturday's contest just one win away from their first 10-win season since the program started in 1997.

Harlan is hoping to see at least between 30,000 to 35,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium Saturday.

"You have to have constant focus on what you're trying to do because there is so much going on in these great cities and to capture attention can be difficult," said Harlan, who served as senior associate athletics director at UCLA before joining USF in 2014. "But you also understand because we live in these great metropolitan cities that we have a lot of chances to attract people. You just have to be very creative in how you do it. For us at USF, it's a year-round approach."

Location is just one factor, however, behind the decline in college football audience nationwide for the past five years. More fans are opting to watch games on television.

Winning, of course, is No. 1. USF's attendance took a hit in the past three years as the team went 14-23 through a rebuilding process under coach Willie Taggart. From 2005 to 2015 the Bulls averaged 40,545 fans, according to the Tampa Tribune.

During the same span, UCF averaged 36,381 fans at home games. The Knights endured four losing seasons – including last year's winless campaign – during that stretch.


New UCF athletics director Danny White and his staff hit the ground running in Orlando in December, trying to reclaim the spike in fan interest during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, during which the Knights ranked No. 62 and 64 nationally in attendance. While the school produced historic spring game numbers (23,147), the regular season at Bright House Networks stadium has mimicked the up and down ride of the football team.

The announced attendance declined for three consecutive games before spiking to 35,141 for UCF's final game against Tulsa. The UCF Athletics Association has not yet provided the number of fans – not tickets distributed — in Bright House Networks Stadium during 2016 home games in response to a request by the Orlando Sentinel.

White emphasized UCF's premium seating ticket sales remained strong this season. The West Club and suites have sold out for 10 consecutive seasons.

"We want to sell out that stadium on a consistent basis and we want to expand it," White said. "I think we can do those things. We now finally have an opportunity to get ahead of things.

"Since I arrived here last December, we were hiring coaches left and right and I just feel like we've been behind the eight ball in everything because there's just not enough time with everything we're trying to accomplish."

Attendance is important for every college football team and Saturday is undoubtedly a big day for not only USF and UCF, but for the AAC, which Aresco has aggressively marketed as a Power 6 league.


The AAC is already performing like a Power 5 conference on the field – and in some cases better, with the league is ranked ahead of the Big 12, according to the real time index.

Now, the conference needs its fans to make a statement.

"This weekend every year, it's gonna be that game and it shouldn't be an excuse for someone to not make it to the game, because you know in advance," Taggart said during his weekly press conference. "We want this rivalry. We want it to be big time. If we want it to be all what we want it to be, then we've got to show up and make it that way. Both fan bases. And there's enough. Both of these university alumni bases are pretty big. So we can welcome them all here in Tampa this weekend. It'll be pretty cool."