The Penn State Nittany Lions will host Kent State on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, a venue that can hold upwards of 108,000 fans. But if recent history is any indication, that number will be a far cry from the actual people in attendance.
This week, Audrey Snyder of PennLive.com wrote a terrific series analyzing the recent decline in attendance at Penn State football games. She states that "figuring out why the number continues to decrease...remains difficult." However, there is one stat that seems to point out a glaring cause.
"Since the start of the 2004 season Penn State has had crowds of less than 100,000 at homes games just 14 times. Eight of those 14 games have occurred since the start of the 2012 season. Through two home games this season the Nittany Lions hosted crowds of 92,863 and 92,855."
In eight years, from 2004 to 2011, Penn State hosted fewer than 100,000 fans just six times. In the nine games since then, they have topped that number only once - a night game against Ohio State. With lowly Kent State coming to town this weekend, even 90,000 might be a lofty goal. While 90,000 is still a great number of fans at a game, it fills Beaver Stadium to just 83 percent of its capacity.
So what changed?
In the summer of 2011, the NCAA levied sanctions against the Nittany Lions, costing them extensive scholarship reductions, as well as a four-year post season ban, limiting the meaning of the regular season. Along with that came a faction of Penn State fans who have taken a stand that supporting the football program is the same thing as supporting the Board of Trustees who accepted the sanctions and fired Joe Paterno.
That's a whole different topic for another day.
The university hasn't exactly acknowledged the dip in attendance, instead they've been running promotions to sell extra tickets. As you can see from the attendance numbers against Eastern Michigan and UCF, that strategy hasn't been very successful.
Going forward, this attendance problem could breed more issues.
Head Coach Bill O'Brien has repeatedly stated that the bowl-ban is not a huge deal when you get to play in front of 108,000 fans every Saturday. However, when recruits visit and there are full sections of empty seats, the experience becomes more difficult to sell. Without recruits, the on-field product diminishes, creating a spiral that Penn State can't afford.
That explains why O'Brien has been so vocal in his support of the student section getting to the games early. They alone can improve the Beaver Stadium experience.
That experience, in turn, should help fill seats.
Between the STEP program, no chance of a bowl bid and increasing difficulty to win big games, there's no reason to expect the attendance issues to resolve themselves. The university will need to get more creative with their approach or find a new strategy altogether. Otherwise, the Penn State fans could end up adding to the trouble that the NCAA placed the program in.
It's not as crazy as it sounds.