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I've been completely off the Illini grid the last 48 hours. After the run-up to the season - camp coverage, the big preview, two games complete by September 4th - I realized that I hadn't seen my wife very much in five weeks. In the past, when the cost for the preview was "if you appreciate the hard work that went into this, please place some coins in the tip jar", I'd then empty the tip jar and go on a September vacation with my wife. Back then, with a full time job + camp coverage, I really didn't see her the month of August.
We can't really do the September vacation thing now. But with a holiday weekend and her not having to work until Tuesday, we could make Sunday and Monday a real, honest "weekend". Two days where I don't even touch the laptop. (OK, one and a half days. I wrote the "How Long" post Sunday morning.)
But then we spent 36 hours hanging out. Hopped on kayaks for the first time in forever. Ate at one of our favorite restaurants. Saw friends we haven't seen in forever. 4.75 Tom Cruises.
Today, she's back to work and I'm trying to catch up. I'll be CTT-ing all day, so Check The Tape will go up tomorrow (we recognize Labor Day here at IlliniBoard LLC, apparently). This morning, before I get to that, I want to talk football attendance real quick.
Attendance on Saturday: 33,906
Attendance average in 2019 (the last season with fans): 36,587
Attendance average Lovie's first season (2016): 45,644
Attendance average Beckman's first season (2012): 45,564
Attendance average Zook's first season (2005): 47,852
Let's put some context around all of this. First, you might remember that I wrote about attendance just before the Wisconsin game (THAT Wisconsin game) in 2019. We had just lost to Michigan in front of 37,275, a number that would have been hard to fathom in the previous 40 years (37k for Michigan), so I wrote about it. A few paragraphs from that post:
The 2017 season dipped below the 1998 low water mark (1998 average attendance: 39,590; 2017: 39,429) to be the lowest average (paid) attendance since 1970 (37,659). Then, last season beat that number (36,151), meaning it was the lowest attendance since 1962 (35,295). If this year dips below that (and it's quite possible, with Rutgers and Northwestern still on the schedule in November - the last Saturday-after-Thanksgiving Northwestern game in 2017 drew 30,456 paid, so this one will almost certainly be less), then this season will be the lowest attendance in Champaign since World War II.
I need to put that in one paragraph for emphasis. The post-war low mark is 1962 when the average attendance was 35,295. That's one year after the winless season (1961) that Dick Butkus was talking about on stage last Friday. Right now the average attendance is 36,800, and that average will get a boost from a homecoming crowd on Saturday but a dip from both Rutgers and Northwestern, and if it dips below 35,295, it will be the lowest since 1945. And the 1945 attendance was war-related. 1946 saw an average attendance of 59,437, but the year before, in 1945, it was 24,011. So "since the war" will be accurate.
As it turned out, 2019 cleared the hurdle (thanks to the four-game winning streak immediately following that article). Here's the average attendance numbers at the bottom of my "from the end of WWII until today" list:
Average attendance so far this season after two games: 37,485. So right between 1970 and 2019 if that holds throughout the season. The magic number: we need to average 34,421 over the final five games to stay above 1962. If not, it will be the lowest average attendance since World War II.
Is attendance down across college football? Yes. Nebraska had to have donors buy 2,100 tickets on Saturday to keep their sellout streak alive. And Michigan's streak of games above 100,000 is going to end soon. Attendance was dropping through the second half of the last decade, and when you add in Covid you can see why attendance is low across the board.
But I think the best way to look at this is to look to our peers. I'll use numbers from 2019 here because 2020 had no fans at Big Ten games. Some uncomfortable statistics:
- Purdue averaged 54,021 during the 2019 season (a season where Illinois went 6-6 and Purdue went 4-8). So roughly 18,000 more fans than Illinois games. The Purdue opener on Saturday drew 47,906.
- We used to mock Northwestern for their tiny crowds but now they've surpassed us. We averaged 36,587 in 2019; Northwestern averaged 37,736. The days of consistently averaging 20,000 more fans than Northwestern are long gone.
- We've fallen well behind Minnesota (46,190) and even Indiana (41,244). And those numbers will likely go up given that both teams sold out their openers this season.
- Rutgers was the only Big Ten school below us in 2019 (30,082), but they also sold out their first game on Saturday, so we're going to be 14th out of 14 this season (for the first time since... 1945 maybe? Perhaps longer than that?)
Please keep in mind where we used to be. In 2010, after the Rose Bowl was followed by two consecutive losing seasons, we dropped from 61,707 in 2008 to 59,545 in 2009 to 54,188 in 2010. When that dropped to 49,548 in 2011 - first time below 50,000 since 2006 - that was discussed as part of the reason Zook was gone. But what we're looking at now (trying to stay above 35,295) is several layers down from that. Put simply, in our bad years, we used to still be 20,000 fans ahead of Northwestern every game. Now we're somehow behind them.
None of this really means anything. I'm not making a statement here. I'm not saying "more fans should be there!" (I think that when we're 2-10) and I'm not saying "Bret Bielema hasn't built fan excitement" (he has, by my observation - the 41k at the Nebraska game would have likely been 28k if Lovie were still the coach). I'm just pointing to where the numbers currently sit. On a Saturday afternoon in the state of Illinois, we've reached the point where more people want to go to a Northwestern game than an Illinois game. When were started that sellout streak in the 1980's and Northwestern was just coming off their 34-game losing streak that stretched across four seasons, I would have bet any amount you wanted that "Northwestern out-draws Illinois" would never be a thing in my lifetime. Yet here we are.
There's only one takeaway, really. And that's "until we win, we'll keep flirting with that 35,295 mark". Wins are the only thing that will fix this. Fans won't jump back in with just a random bowl win here or there. It's going to take back-to-back bowls (or an out-of-nowhere Rose Bowl like 2007) to resuscitate ticket sales.
The students have jumped back in (God bless 'em), selling out the student section for the first time in a long time. But on the east, on the west, and in the horseshoe, we're down to the "you can't make me quit" diehards.