Eastern Michigan was again dead last in attendance at the FBS level, drawing 5,016 fans per game in 2009.
That means it filled Rynearson Stadium to 16.61 percent of capacity in its five home games.
It gets worse.
They opened with Army—a great road draw—and drew 14,499.
Yes, they averaged 2,645 in their last four home games—and those last four home games were in-conference games against their longtime rivals.
Let's not beat around the bush here.
Last year's schedule was especially brutal, and EMU has struggled to draw crowds without a brutal schedule. From 2004-2007, EMU averaged 9782 fans per game.
Something has to be done about this. No school should be playing FBS football and drawing effectively less than 3,000 of its own fans per game to in-conference games, as EMU did last year. That is a money pit.
As I wrote in a previous article, EMU's Rynearson Stadium is a big part of the problem , but it isn't all of the problem.
University President Susan Martin and the EMU board of regents need to get serious about getting the football program to an FBS subsistence level. That may or may not mean that heads need to roll.
Things have gone downhill for the football program under AD Derrick Gragg's leadership since his hire in 2006, but regardless of whether a change is required in personnel in the athletic department, changes are required in methodology.
EMU plays five home games a year now because the administration (or maybe just the athletic department) doesn't have a clue how to make football work there.
What is being tried is clearly not working. With that in mind, here are some scheduling guidelines—including one that should never, ever be broken—to get EMU football attendance off this road to oblivion. These rules—in conjunction with the stadium upgrades —would do a lot to fix the issue at EMU.
1. Do Not Compete Head-to-Head with the University of Michigan
Consider this more of a rule than a guideline.
EMU played three of its five home games last season the same day Michigan hosted teams 11 miles down the road.
They played a fourth the day all eyes in the state were focused on Michigan State for the Michigan-at-MSU game.
I don't understand how that kind of schedule could have been approved by an athletic director with firsthand knowledge of the realities of EMU's situation.
The guy has been in place for years. Does he not realize that if Michigan is pulling 100K+ football fans that day to a stadium 11 miles down the road that scheduling a home game for the same day is not a good idea?
EMU is a commuter school. Weekend games are problematic for that reason anyway. Why would anyone who has been there for years compound the situation by having them play every one of their home games on Saturdays? ("Fans like Saturday games" is not an acceptable answer.)
Part of the job of the athletic department is to recoup costs by selling tickets. You aren't going to do that going head-to-head with Michigan.
You shouldn't play a home game the same day Michigan plays a home game or the day they play at MSU.
If your opponent requires the game to be played at EMU that weekend, play the game on Thursday if at all possible so there is a full two-day gap.
If Michigan opens the season at home the first week of the year, there is nothing to prevent you from opening your season 2 days earlier. That only guarantees you get the football starved fan to bump up what should be your season's highest draw.
2. Try to Play Five Home Games and a Neutral Site 'Home' Game Each Year
Try for two out-of-conference games that will draw well each year.
Six "home games" is really needed here for recruiting. If you cannot recruit, you cannot regularly win. If you can't win, your attendance will suffer.
While it is technically better to take a local (Rust Belt) body bag road game if you really only can scare up one good draw out-of-conference home game (for a total of 5 home games), the AD should consider it a personal defeat.
3. Try to schedule a pre-conference play Fifth Home Game Against Army, Navy, Air Force, Michigan State, Marshall, or Youngstown State
All of these schools would likely be pretty decent draws.
The military academies will consider playing anywhere and will pull a good 10,000 fans over your normal draw.
MSU has recently decided to play the 3 Michigan MAC schools in the future , and that dovetails into what I am suggesting. As EMU is in Michigan's backyard, playing EMU might hold some additional value for MSU. Time will tell.
Marshall has a tiny athletic budget for CUSA. They would love to have very inexpensive travel before their in-conference play starts. They are a good draw in the MAC region and despite their conference change still like playing MAC schools.
Youngstown State draws a little more than 15,000 a year and is close enough that they might travel some fans to an early season game at EMU (before the snow starts falling).
Try to schedule it between Week One and Week Five on a weekend when Michigan is out of town. You want it early enough in the year that EMU fans have not yet decided the team is another dog.
4. Try to Play Army, Navy, Air Force, Michigan State, Marshall, Cincinnati, Louisville, WMU, CMU, Toledo, or Bowling Green in Detroit each year
From 2004-2007, EMU played the "College Clash"—a game annually at Detroit's Ford Field. Restore the "collegiate clash" and try to get it rebroadcast overnight on a Detroit TV station if that particular EMU game isn't already being broadcasted.
EMU stopped this after they played Northeastern—a private school from northern Chicago— and drew a paltry 10,000.
That wasn't a problem with the concept—that was a problem with the opponents. WMU only pulled a little more than 11,191 for their matchup with EMU in 2005, but WMU and CMU are two-and-a-half hours from Detroit. The Army game did all right, pulling 15,816 in 2006.
These numbers may sound really small, but I am sure they were within expectations for Ford Field management, if a bit on the low end, and are better than what EMU draws at home.
Playing a team in Detroit is a good idea if the costs are reasonable. Eastern Michigan should aspire to be the team of Eastern Michigan. Playing in Detroit makes Detroit kids more aware of EMU and more likely to attend there. A Detroit game does what college football is supposed to do—raise your profile to attract students to your school.
Playing the game at Ford Field—a pro stadium—opens the door to a variety of opponents who would never play EMU normally, as well as opening the door to EMU's large alumni base in the Detroit area to attend a game.
Schools like MSU, Cincy, Marshall, and Louisville might be quite agreeable to getting a foot in the door for Detroit area and Michigan recruiting. Ohio State might be very interested as well for the same reason, but the idea is not to get beaten 60-0.
If you can't get one of those teams for a 6th game, play one of your in-conference games there. Toledo, or even occasionally Bowling Green, makes sense. Both schools have easy travel to Detroit and are closer to Detroit than the other two directional Michigan schools. (BG is about an hour and a half from Ford Field, and Toledo is about one hour away.)
EMU grads probably have historically moved toward Detroit to find jobs. There is a significant EMU alumni base living there. Likely the same thing happens with BG and Toledo grads. There are probably enough grads from BG or Toledo living in Detroit to have that game draw a crowd in the low 20s. That is a lot better than what EMU is drawing.
Even if you lose a little money doing this, at the end of the day the boost you get in recruiting and building a Detroit fanbase will help EMU in the long run. Some of those fans may drive to Rynearson from time to time.
5. Try to get your weakest in-conference home game pushed to the front of the schedule.
EMU is a bad team on the field and has been for quite a while. Odds are it will be a bad team for a few more years at least.
With that in mind, it makes a lot more sense to play a peer bad school early in the season when the fans haven't turned on the team than late in the year when the casual fans no longer care.
It would be ideal if EMU could play the matchup of the likely worst teams on their in-conference home schedule in week 3-4.
Ideally by week 5 EMU will have played a home opener (guideline 3), a road money game in week 2, the Collegiate Clash in Detroit in week 3 (guideline 4), the easiest home matchup in the MAC on week 4 (guideline 5), and a bodybag road gainst against a Big East or MWC opponent in week 5.
In that scenario, EMU will have 3 "home games" that should draw well before the EMU crowd can pronounce them a bad team. The early season stacking will give their team a better chance of turning the corner.
I cannot guarantee that EMU doesn't have an FCS future, but these steps —in conjuction with the stadium seating reduction recommendations —will allow EMU to succeed if they are capable of succeeding at the FBS level.
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