UTC football’s attendance challenge: ‘We should be at about 11,000’

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Fans fill about 39% of the capacity of Finley Stadium on Saturday.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Fans fill about 39% of the capacity of Finley Stadium on Saturday.


The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is experiencing a noticeable uptick in football success these past two seasons, compiling a 13-6 record that includes a 10-4 mark in Southern Conference play.

It's not translating to a packed Finley Stadium.

UTC's attendance average of 7,921 through four of five games on this year's Finley Stadium schedule is slightly behind last season's final clip of 7,976. Both figures are well off the 9,494 that the Mocs averaged in 2016, which was the lowest total of Russ Huesman's eight-year coaching run that began in 2009.

The high-water mark of 12,699 the Mocs averaged in 2010 may forever stay that way, but UTC athletic director Mark Wharton isn't bailing on a dilemma that has accompanied this program for a quarter century.

"I think we should be, in this town, at about 11,000, to be realistic," Wharton said. "You talk about stadiums in the Southern Conference, and nobody is above 8,500, and we have 22,000. If you put our crowds in Samford's stadium, it would be sold out, and the same with ETSU's (East Tennessee State University) stadium and Western Carolina's, but we've just got to keep going."

(READ MORE: UTC welcomes largest freshman class in school history)

UTC has listened to the reasons people give for not attending games and made adjustments — to no avail — such as playing more games on Thursday nights, when teams that are bigger draws are less likely to play.

The Thursday before Labor Day has worked well at times for the Mocs, but that is it, as Saturday's crowd of 8,144 for the 34-3 shellacking of East Tennessee State surpassed the 7,124 who attended UTC's 16-13 Thursday night topping of the Bucs on Oct. 17, 2019.

And who can forget the abysmal tally of 4,821 for a Thursday night loss to Western Carolina midway through the 2001 season? Plenty of good sections were available for that one.

The adage of "win more, and we'll come" doesn't seem to be working now and hasn't within the past decade, either.

"We've gone back to when Russ Huesman had his run of three championships and his attendance when he wasn't winning as much, and it didn't change that much," Wharton said. "We've got to find that crack and fill that crack to get people here. When Tennessee plays at the same time in Knoxville, we have issues, but we just try to control what we can control.

"We think we have a great game-day atmosphere, and I've seen some new faces this year and some younger families," Wharton said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's Finley Stadium seeks funds for lighting, elevator improvements)

Huesman won big with the Mocs from 2013-16, racking up a 36-16 record that contained three SoCon championships and three trips to the Championship Subdivision playoffs. Reasons for the nice attendance totals of 2010 include Huesman's quick upgrading of the program, former McCallie School quarterback B.J. Coleman taking the snaps and having quality games against Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, which each brought good crowds before moving on to the larger Bowl Subdivision level.

In Rusty Wright's five seasons at the helm, the Mocs have surpassed 10,000 fans once, defeating North Alabama 41-14 early last season before an announced audience of 10,254.

 

A silver lining to the continuing stagnation of UTC football attendance is that Finley Stadium isn't nearly as dependent on the Mocs compared to the early years of the 20,412-seat facility that opened during the 1997 season. Finley Stadium and the neighboring First Horizon Pavilion are as busy as ever, hosting 111 events from July through September after having 49 in the same period last year.

The Chattanooga FC won this season's National Independent Soccer Association regular season and will host a NISA semifinal on Nov. 5, and the UTC women's soccer team posted a 10-6-1 regular season that included a 6-1-1 record at home. Finley has stayed active on the high school football front as well, housing Tyner twice, Grace Academy twice and McCallie once, and stadium officials are absolutely drooling at the possibility of No. 1 McCallie facing No. 2 Baylor for the Division II-AAA state championship several weeks from now at the BlueCross Bowl.

"I don't think there is a break-even number (with UTC football attendance)," Finley Stadium Executive Director and UTC alum Brian Wright said. "I think what we're trying to do with limited financial resources is to make small, smart investments so we can continue scaling the different areas of our business to get bigger events that the community says they want and to provide better service. We're still very much dependent on our partners and our event partners, and fortunately they're all successful, so we've been able to reap some of the benefits of that.

"Just through the natural progression as a facility, I think the formula has kind of been developed that helps make our business sustainable," Wright said. "The coolest thing about that to me is that this stadium is more relevant in year 26 than it was in year 12 or 13. I think for most venues, it's the opposite."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's Finley Stadium going cashless, introduces new food concepts)

Concessions sales for UTC football games were up 32% over last season entering this past weekend. UTC's lightest crowd (6,440) this season occurred against The Citadel on Sept. 16, with that game delayed by inclement weather, but the same conditions that kept fans away also resulted in those who were there buying more food and drinks while they waited.

Steering this community to more UTC football contests is the forever challenge, and that especially applies to Mocs students, who only require a short walk to men's and women's basketball games at McKenzie Arena. Even students who arrive at Finley Stadium don't always advance to the seating areas.

"We're constantly looking at ways to involve the student body," Wharton said, "but sometimes you go to the North Lot before a game, and it's packed, and then you go back there at halftime, and it's still packed. We're trying to get them in, and we'll keep trying."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected] or 423-757-6524.


 
 



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