MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -In a sense, he sneaked up on us like a snowstorm in the night. The stars twinkled as the lights went out and it was pleasantly crisp.
Oh, you knew it was coming. The weather reports told you to expect it, but you weren’t really sure it wasn’t going to slide all over you and everything would be fine that morning.
Then quietly, during the night, it began softly, quietly, inexorably. Unlike a summer storm, it wasn’t loud and violent, just fluffy beautiful snowflakes fluttering to the ground until you woke up and looked out the window, smiled and then suddenly realized the path needed shoveling , the car cleaned up, the roads taken care of A.
So, it was with participation in West Virginia football. Did you know the day would come when you’d have to pay the piper for losses, COVID and uncertainty, for a coach in trouble trying to bail out his job while existing in a conference that was suddenly looking at its top two franchises? big and rich were leaving.
You knew it was happening, but you had to see it in black and white and it came this week when collegefootball.com released a summary of the 5-year attendance averages of 131 D-1 schools and where they ranked and with attendance data of 2022 and the largest crowd drawn.
Overall, it has hardly been a disaster for West Virginia, ranking 33rd in the nation with 44,032 five-year average attendance, a figure drastically lowered by the COVID year of 2020, but one that has affected all schools.
When you brought it up with new athletic director Wren Baker, who is still trying to navigate his way through so many things that are foreign to him, he took it without panicking.
“It’s a trend in our institution and nationwide,” he said. “Most people haven’t had the same kind of crowds post-COVID they had pre-COVID. Some people (fans) just retired. Fans are the lifeblood of our show and we understand that.”
But, like those weather reports we get, there are scary signs in the raw data.
For example, WVU has only played to 73.4 percent stadium capacity over the past five years. Of the 14 teams that will make up the “new Big 12” competing this year before Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC, it falls short of any school other than Kansas and Houston.
The Mountaineers went from averaging 58,158 five years ago in 2018 to 55,907 a year COVID of 6,653 per game to 51,584 in 2021 and just 47,658 last year.
The 47,658 is the lowest COVID-year home attendance since 2001, when Rich Rodriguez’s team averaged 48,323 per game.
Also, the largest crowd last season was 52,188 for the home opener against Kansas. When they got to the final game of the season at home against Kansas State, there were 37,055 in attendance.
Since 2002 WVU has drawn at least an audience of 60,000 every year except 2013 when the largest audience was 58,570 and last year when only 51,288 made it to the main game.
Baker warns against reading too much into such numbers, but notes that they also cannot be ignored.
“You have to take into account a lot of things when you look at the raw data in terms of who the opponent was, when those games fell, there are a lot of outliers. You have to be careful not to read too much into a single snapshot.
But this is critical in all areas of a football program’s success, from home field advantage to recruiting to finances.
“In terms of what home field/home field advantage means to our programs, we certainly know we have enjoyed some home field advantage over the years, but also what it means for bottom line why we need to create revenue whenever we have the opportunity to do it,” Baker said.
“I wouldn’t say I sounded any alarm bells. I’m studying to make sure I maximize the number of people who would like to come to the games, giving them the opportunity to come, what their experience is like, how the home schedule plays in this,” she added.
Baker, of course, was hired with the top priority of evaluating beleaguered coach Neal Brown’s performance as manager and deciding whether to keep him beyond next season.
Will presence play a role in that assessment?
“As far as how that would play into a manager’s evaluation, I’m generally quite cautious about placing too much emphasis on fan participation in those evaluation methods. It’s the same reason coaches always talk about the process over the results on the scoreboard,” Baker said.
“What is most important for coaches is to recruit the right kind of student-athletes, coach the student-athletes, provide an experience that the student-athletes can enjoy and feel good about, connect with the community, make the their part to represent the institution and the state well … so I would stop short of saying that attendance plays no role, but it is not a central point of the evaluation process.
All of this is happening as the Big 12 shifts around WVU with Oklahoma and Texas, the two leaders in conference attendance and the two biggest national faces in conference, heading to the SEC after this season while Cincinnati, Houston, BYU and Central Florida participate in the conference.
The round robin schedule is over and how these four teams are accepted in Morgantown becomes important as they will play all four, Cincinnati and BYU at home.
What kind of effect will that have on Mountaineer attendance?
“I think Cincinnati will be a net positive for us. They may not have the national brand or history that Oklahoma and Texas have, but I’d be shocked if it wasn’t a very busy game,” Baker said. “Cincinnati will bring a lot of fans here. People will come out to see a regional rival, something we’ve been missing in recent years.”
BYU, while a foreign land to WVU fans, is arguably the biggest addition to the conference. When Texas and Oklahoma leave, it will have the highest average attendance in the past five years of any Big 12 team, barely surpassing Iowa State
“BYU historically brings in a lot of fans. People who are Mormon all over the country follow them, so whenever they are in an area, they come out to see them,” Baker said. “BYU has a very passionate following. When you look at the league, BYU very much mirrors the passion of our fans. They haven’t been to a conference in a while, but they are a very tradition-based program.”
As for Houston and Central Florida, Baker sees them as good opponents for WVU.
“My guess is that as long as (formerly WVU) head coach (Dana) Holgorsen is in Houston, that game is going to be pretty good,” he said. “I think people will be excited to see UCF. It is a trend-setting brand that is emerging. This is new money, so to speak, to use an old term. I think they can develop quite a sequel.
“I don’t think the new membership will have a negative effect. It’s more likely to have a slightly positive effect on the league, at least initially.”