It’s been tough for Atlantic Coast Conference schools to fill their stadiums – even during one of the league’s best seasons on the field in years.
ACC stadiums have been less than 85 percent full this season, according to STATS LLC. That’s the smallest number since the league expanded in 2004, and that’s despite having three teams in the top 10 in the rankings.
“It takes a great fan to come to games now,” said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, whose team lost at Miami last week before thousands of vacant orange seats. “Everywhere we go, we see empty seats.”
Attendance in the ACC has been declining every year since 2007, when the stadiums were 93 percent full.
That number dipped to 88 percent in 2010 and fell to 85 percent last year, according to STATS.
The ACC can expect a couple of sellouts in instate rivalry games this weekend: No. 3 Florida State hosts No. 7 Miami, and North Carolina visits N.C. State.
“It’s going to be a real good feeling just having 85,000 people on your side this time,” said Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston, comparing it to a victory two weeks ago at Clemson.
But those appear to be the exceptions to the general trend of empty seats, which Grobe calls “kind of a national thing now.
“There’s a lot of tickets sold now,” he added, “but I guess a lot of people stay in parking lots.”
One reason is obvious: Having so many games available on television makes it tough to attract big crowds to the stadium.
That’s why North Carolina senior associate athletic director Rick Steinbacher says the challenge is to “try to make that in-stadium experience as unique and as special and as exciting as it can possibly be so it’s harder to choose to stay home than come to the game.
“Give the fans something unique and make them feel part of something when they’re in the stadium in a way that you don’t when you’re at home,” he said.
While it’s obvious during games that attendance is down, few ACC schools count it the same way.
Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and N.C. State all go by the number of tickets sold and distributed. Wake Forest uses the number of tickets scanned plus a count of students that show up. And North Carolina’s announced attendance is merely an estimate from the press box.
Looking at individual schools year by year, attendance is down at six of them.
No. 8 Clemson and Virginia Tech, the league’s leaders in attendance, are experiencing declines this year, though the Tigers’ drop barely counts. They’re only down 67 fans per game – a dip of only a fraction of one percent.
It’s a little more noticeable for the Hokies, whose 93-game sellout streak at Lane Stadium ended last month when there were some 4,000 empty seats for their home opener against Western Carolina. They’re drawing about 2,000 fewer fans per home game.
At Duke, where luring fans to antiquated Wallace Wade Stadium has always been a challenge, attendance is down 14.5 percent – the biggest drop in the league.
UNC has attracted an average of nearly 1,500 more fans – but on a perfect autumn day for last week’s game against Boston College, one upper-deck sideline section had just seven people.
Virginia hasn’t sold out Scott Stadium since Southern California visited in 2008 and was 3,000 shy of capacity for a September game against No. 2 Oregon.
Its loss to Ball State came before its smallest home crowd since 2010, a gathering of 38,228 that defensive end Eli Harold said turned against the slumping Cavaliers.
“The crowd behind us is yelling at us,” Harold said. “I mean, they’re our fans. It’s like they’re for the other team. And that all comes in play to winning. ... When you hear things, it causes a cancer and causes you to act a certain way.”
There have been some success stories. Maryland, which had its best start since 2001, is drawing nearly 5,000 more fans per game in its final season in the ACC.
And unbeaten Miami has made some progress. The Hurricanes have pulled in nearly 10,000 more fans per game to the cavernous 74,916-seat stadium they share with the NFL’s Dolphins.
Yet the announced crowd of 66,160 for last week’s 24-21 win over Wake Forest certainly seemed a lot smaller.
“I thought that Miami’s stadium would be a lot more full,” Demon Deacons quarterback Tanner Price said. “It might be because they were just playing us.”
The ACC’s newest teams, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, are filling their venues to roughly 75 percent capacity – below the league average, but better than what they drew during their final year in the Big East.
As it always does, the schedule helped: Pitt sold out its league opener against Florida State – and has another sellout coming next week when Notre Dame visits the oversized stadium the Panthers share with the NFL’s Steelers – while the Orange’s best home crowd came earlier this month in a visit from Clemson.