Conference USA: Why Can't UCF Fans Pack the Bright House?

Jon ReinContributor IOctober 28, 2010

UCF H-Back Ricky Kay En Route to a Fourth Quarter Touchdown Against Rice (Photo Courtesy of Orlando Sentinel)
UCF H-Back Ricky Kay En Route to a Fourth Quarter Touchdown Against Rice (Photo Courtesy of Orlando Sentinel)

In the past two home games, the UCF Knights have won by an average of 31 points.  Their defense is ranked nationally (seventh in overall defense) and are in the top 50 in total offense.  They have a freshman phenom at quarterback in the form of Jeffrey Godfrey, the centerpiece of what was widely considered the best recruiting class in school history.

You would think things were on the up and up in Orlando.

Yet, from the looks of the attendance at games, you would think this team was 2-5, not 5-2.

This begs the question: how is it that UCF, a school with the third-highest undergraduate population in the country (reaching the 53,000 threshold) in a city whose only competition for sports attendance is the NBA's Orlando Magic can't fill up Bright House Networks Stadium?

The school has tried almost everything to coax the fan base into coming to games.  For the UAB game (a nationally televised game on ESPN, mind you), not only did they shut down all classes for the day, they literally gave out tickets to any student of any college in the area.  That's right, folks.  If you attend the Paul Mitchell Cosmetology School, come on out and see the Knights!

The result? A paltry 32,000 fans.  My math may be a bit off, but that leaves roughly 10,000 empty seats for the sports world to see on ESPN.

This past weekend, UCF's Student Government ran a promotion during tailgating at Memory Mall where students who recycled three items and had a student ID or PID handy could receive a free ticket to the game.  

Without divulging names, I personally know of several alumni and fans who used old PIDs to get into games. It was that easy to get a ticket to the homecoming game, a game which should never be less than a sell-out crowd at any college.

Once again, the fans failed to fill up the stadium, falling 7,000 seats short.  

Sports marketing is obviously not the issue for the Knights.  It may be a bit more simple than that.

Honestly, the challenge UCF faces is that for all intents and purposes, they are still very much in their infancy as an athletics program.  Because of that, much of the current student body grew up cheering for the UFs, FSUs and Miamis of the world.  Those were the relevant programs for them growing up.  For fans my age, UCF was only known as the place Daunte Culpepper went to school.  

This is a challenge most directional schools face.  Because of that, there is a negative stigma that faces them.  The only exception to this rule would be Boise State who, while not the only game in town technically, are the only relevant team in their state.  They overcame the stigma by winning at a ridiculous clip, thus eclipsing the Idaho Vandals.

This is another thing UCF needs to do to help pack The Dungeon: win, win and win some more.

As any fan knows, the O'Leary era has been plagued by inconsistency on the field.  In fact, if the Knights go on to win two more games, this would mark the first time UCF has posted back-to-back winning seasons since George O'Leary took over as head coach in 2004.  

This inability to consistently put out a winning product, as well as O'Leary's well documented abrasiveness towards fans and media, has clearly made a negative impact on attendance.  

As unfortunate as it is to say, major college football is, at its root, a business.  Fans are investing something (whether it be money or something more on an emotional level) into a product.  If the product isn't rewarding on a near-regular basis, why would the consumer continue to invest?  

Hopefully the past few games have served as a wake up call to fans.  Yes, the team hasn't beaten anyone that fantastic (Marshall, UAB and Rice aren't exactly taking the sports world by storm), but they haven't just beaten them: they have pulverized them.  For a team who in the past has played not to lose, this is an improvement.  

This is why Saturday's matchup against East Carolina is a big one for the Knights.  This could arguably be the biggest game in the history of this stadium.  The best way to ensure a victory is if the 12th man shows up in the form of fans.  Having attended the stadium opener against Texas, as well as the Conference USA Championship in 2007, I know that place can get loud with 45,000 fans in there.  The way it was constructed, it's as if 100,000 fans are singing along to "Zombie Nation."

Let's hope the 12th man dresses for Saturday's battle against the Pirates.