Winning helps, that much is certain. There probably isn’t anything better for boosting attendance than a successful college football team.
But Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen is aware there’s more to it than that. Fans require something else from their game day experiences now, she said. They need to know the university is listening to what they want.
“Our attendance is significantly better now than it was in our 0-12 season,” Cohen said, noting the Huskies’ historically bad 2008 season that ended without a win.
“But we also saw some really consistent support even through those down times, too. I think that tells you that at least here in Seattle, people are coming not just for the winning and for the game. They’re coming to be with each other, too.”
Through five home games in 2018, UW experienced an increase in stadium attendance from last season, according to Carter Henderson, the senior associate athletic director for external relations. Husky Stadium has an average paid attendance of 69,588, which ranks first in the Pac-12.
Since 2015, UW’s average paid attendance has been on the rise. It was 61,919 during the 2015 season, jumped to 64,589 in 2016 and was 68,822 in 2017 when the Huskies went to the College Football Playoff. The boost of 4,233 from 2016 to 2017 was the seventh-largest increase in the country, according to the NCAA.
But when it comes to attendance, most every sports team will have a discrepancy between paid attendance and scanned attendance. While paid attendance represents the number of tickets sold, scanned attendance shows the amount fans that actually entered the stadium.
According to data obtained by McClatchy, Washington had an average scanned attendance of 54,479 in 2017. That’s a difference of 14,473 per game.
While Washington State had a paid attendance of 31,982 in 2017, the Cougars’ scanned attendance was 23,996. That means their attendance was increased by 7,986 per game.
McClatchy hasn’t obtained UW or Washington State scanned attendance numbers for the 2018 season.
“I think it depends on why (fans) are no-showing,” said Washington State athletic director Patrick Chun. “If there’s a blizzard or a rainstorm and there’s no shows that’s one thing. If there’s no-shows because there’s apathy that’s another thing.
“I think every case is a little bit different. I think it just depends on why there are no-shows. But absolutely, that would always be a concern if people are purchasing tickets and not using them.”
There will likely always be a gap there, Henderson said via email.
“The best way to ensure the highest show-rate is by continuing to invest in the on-field product,” he said.
McClatchy attained scanned attendance numbers for seven other Pac-12 schools: Arizona, Colorado, Cal, Utah, Oregon State and UCLA. Of the nine schools analyzed, Washington had the highest scanned attendance average. UCLA (45,145) was second followed by Oregon (42,492).
“Husky fans traditionally and historically have been a very loyal and passionate base,” Cohen said, “but I think the challenge really for us is to never take that for granted. We need to do our part in providing a really great experience.”
Cohen, Henderson and Chun are all keenly aware of the national trend showing a downturn in college football attendance. The key to staying ahead of it, Cohen said, is understanding what fans want out of a game day experience.
Under Cohen, UW’s athletic department has emphasized fan input. The athletic department started a fan advisory council a few years ago, which Cohen said was helpful but didn’t give enough feedback.
Now, the Huskies launched a survey fans can take after every game. The goal is to give fans ownership over their game day experience.
The tricky part? Walking the line between what different demographics want, Cohen said. It’s often generational.
“Students sometimes want different kinds of music and experiences than maybe a long-time season ticket who maybe wants to hear more of the band,” she said. “I don’t think there’s just one trend, I think that’s kind of the point.
“You really need to study the demographics of your fanbase and get as much data as you can to then determine where are their crossovers, what is the common ground that fans are looking for.”
Like Cohen, Chun knows the game day experience is about more than just the game itself. The hours and even days leading up to kickoff are critical, especially at a school like Washington State where many fans arrive in RVs on a Thursday for Saturday games.
“Even our game day with what we do with our corporate area, with our party areas, our kids areas,” Chun said. “Those are things we’re trying to build up. Once you’re in the stadium, it’s trying to get excitement with our students, using the band, using the scoreboard.”
There is nothing more important than the product a school puts on the field, Chun said. For Washington State, the 2018 season has been “magical.” The Cougars are 8-1 and at the top of the Pac-12 North standings, and are ranked eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“The reality is that creates more energy and more power and what we do on Saturday creates more excitement,” Chun said. “Everything has to really kind of line up.”
The Cougars have had three paid home sellouts this season, including a season-high number of 33,152 for the game against Oregon when ESPN’s ‘College Gameday’ came to Pullman on Oct. 20. This season, WSU’s average attendance is 31,057 through five games.
But Chun knows how quickly things can change, especially if the product on the field slips. Every season is going to be different, he said. That’s why, much like UW, Washington State is focused on getting feedback from season ticket holders.
“Specific to Washington State, our strategy because of where we sit geographically, we’re trying to build inward-out,” Chun said. “When I say that, I mean to build our environment it has to start with our students and then it goes to our faculty and staff, the residents of our city of Pullman, our region of the state and then fan out from there.”
Even in Seattle, with so many competing entertainment options, Cohen has found that people still want the opportunity connect with other fans.
“The live experience is still something that’s very special for people,” she said. “It’s the one way people can get together and so we need to honor that in ways where when they’re in the venue, they know that they’re a part of the game day experience. We’re not creating the game day experience, they’re creating the game day experience.”
Tickets sales are critical revenue drivers for any athletic department. The decrease in attendance across the country, as well as competition from improving technology and viewing options, will never go unnoticed.
“We’re not immune to that by any stretch of the imagination,” Chun said.
In any given year, Cohen said, football generates between 85 and 90 percent of UW’s athletic revenue. Maximizing revenue in football not only ensures a competitive football program, but affects the Huskies’ other programs.
“It’s absolutely the single most critical piece to our financial well-being that we have the most amount of control over,” Cohen said of football ticket sales. “That and fundraising. When we first started a couple years ago, we had some financial challenges. And quite frankly in this day and age in college sports, I don’t think that goes away. I think that’s just our reality.”
But the success of the team as well as upticks in game revenue and contributions have helped. It has not only allowed the Huskies to maintain a consistent staff in football, Cohen said, but also enabled them to make changes in basketball, such as bringing on second-year men’s head coach Mike Hopkins.
Ticket sales need to have a positive impact on fundraising, Chun said. The Cougars’ 2018 success will help both.
“There’s no advertising quite like what we’ve been able to do from a social media standpoint, from a television standpoint over the last couple weeks,” he said.
“That ultimately would be too expensive to buy what’s happened organically because of what’s going on with our football program. Positivity typically leads to positivity. Winning typically leads to more winning.”