Wisch: With Attendance, Illini Losing The Numbers Game

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) On Wednesday night, University of Illinois football offensive coordinator Bill Cubit made a play online when he tweeted out to his followers: “Saturday will be here before we know it. Look forward to seeing Memorial Stadium packed full of the ILLINI faithful.”

To see that, however, Cubit may have to wait until another Saturday – one that won’t be here before we know it. Or might not come at all.

Because as coach Tim Beckman’s third-year Fighting Illini squad heads into Week 2 of the season against Western Kentucky with a 1-0 record, it’s becoming apparent that wins and losses won’t be the only numbers that he and his staff will be judged on this year.

Attendance figures into the equation, too. And it should.

Last Saturday, with an announced crowd of only 36,234 at 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium for the Illini’s shaky 28-17 victory over Youngstown State, Illinois had the fourth-smallest turnout for a home opener among the nation’s power-five conferences.

Only academic elites Duke (31,213), Vanderbilt (31,731) and Northwestern (34,228) had crowds that were smaller, while Purdue drew a bit better than Illinois with 37,031 at Ross-Ade Stadium to round out the bottom five. However, if those numbers were based on percentage of capacity, Illinois would find itself second-worst in the nation behind only Purdue, according to the Champaign News-Gazette.

Having been one of the fans actually in attendance at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, I also can attest that the actual crowd in Champaign was considerably less than the announced total of 36,000-plus. It might have been below 30,000. Whatever it was, it was embarrassing, although not surprising.

Thus far in his Illini tenure, most of the focus has been on Beckman’s lackluster 7-18 overall record, which has included a 1-15 mark in the Big Ten. However, as the Illini work toward reaching a bowl game this season in order to stabilize Beckman’s job status, athletic director Mike Thomas also has to keep an eye on the growing number of empty seats at home games.

There’s an undeniable lack of buzz surrounding Beckman’s program, which has enjoyed no uptick following the poor excitement levels and small crowds that Ron Zook’s teams produced during his last few seasons. And if the weak turnout against Youngstown State is any indication, Illinois could be headed toward its sixth straight year of sinking attendance.

During the 2008 season following the Illini’s Rose Bowl appearance, average attendance at Memorial Stadium hit a 19-year high of 61,707 (larger than the renovated stadium’s reduced capacity today) before plummeting to just 43,787 last season. During that stretch, the Illini have gone a woeful 9-31 in the Big Ten and lost nearly 18,000 fans per game – a frightening number that becomes even more so when you consider that it could fall further yet this season.

So, what can the Illini do to stem this ebbing tide of fandom? They can win, of course. And with home games remaining against Western Kentucky, Texas State, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State, Illinois theoretically has a good shot do so. However, with no Ohio State or Michigan – or even a Michigan State or a Wisconsin – on the slate, the schedule also isn’t sexy, nor does it include teams with Nebraska-like fan bases that gobble up tickets in hordes. Little bodes well for the attendance figures.

It’s recently been suggested by some Illini followers that the university could start selling beer at Memorial Stadium in order to elevate crowd levels and give fans a reason besides football to stay in their seats later into games — or come at all. But I believe such a measure would smack of desperation while also sending a questionable message to the underage students in attendance.

What Illinois could do is consider establishing a 21-and-over street fest near Memorial Stadium in which beer would be sold prior to games and perhaps during halftime, but it’s doubtful that such a move alone would bring in considerably more fans.

Fan-friendly changes that absolutely should happen at Memorial Stadium include vastly improving the facility’s maddening Wi-Fi network (even while sitting in a suite on Saturday, it was nearly impossible to get Internet access on my iPhone) and finding some way to lure more students out of their dorm rooms.

To do so, Illinois might consider uprooting the dwindling “Block I” student section from its current remote spot high above the north end zone and relocating them back to the west grandstand. In that former location, “Block I” members were much closer to the field and directly behind the opposing sideline, which made games considerably more fun and engaging.

Wins, of course, also make things fun and engaging, and if Beckman gets enough of those this season his job will be secure. But like losses, empty seats add up too.

Illini observers would be wise to keep their eyes on both this season.

Dave Wischnowsky is columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.

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