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County battles attendance slump

Average crowds at Pinellas football games has dropped each of the past four seasons.

Pinellas County attendance at public school football games followed its steady pattern of decreasing and dropped to a five-year low of 50,341 in the 1998 season. That was down from the 61,087 that went in 1994, according to the 1998-99 Pinellas County Centralized Athletics Attendance and Financial Report.

The drop follows the 1997 season total of 53,170. That was the only time over the past five years that attendance grew. In 1996, 52,907 fans attended public school football games.

County activities director Bob Hosack said the trend is not new.

"Year after year we're fighting it," Hosack said. "It's always a problem when attendance drops."

According to the report, East Lake, the only school that played four home games, led the county with an average of nearly 1,300 fans a game. The county's largest school was the only one to draw more than 5,000 fans last season.

Dunedin, during an 0-10 season, had the lowest attendance mark with 1,312 as just 32 students attended the Falcons' five home games. The East Lake and Gibbs junior varsity programs drew more than Dunedin's varsity, with 1,601 and 1,383 fans respectively.

East Lake, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs have had the strongest football fan base over the past five years. Clearwater, which won its first playoff game in school history, was the only other school to draw more than 4,000.

The drop in attendance came despite the addition of Palm Harbor University, which started its program in 1997. Hosack said he blames the "same old excuses."

Bad weather, an unwillingness to go to road games and apathy are reasons Hosack said people stay away from high school football games. He also said people have so many other events they can attend on Friday nights.

The activities board tried to combat the problem by bringing back activity tickets, which give families reduced rates to all events for the entire school year.

It was something the county tried in the past with little success. It didn't succeed last year, either _ Hosack said the county sold about 35 of them.

Hosack said he thinks changed district alignments this season might spark renewed interest.

Because Pinellas County is centrally funded, it has a set yearly budget for the 16 public schools to operate under that is not dependent on revenue generated from football. Still, Hosack said there is cause for concern as revenue dropped because football accounted for 60 percent of the county's gate receipts last season.

As for evaluating options to try boosting attendance, Hosack said the county had tried a lot.

"Short of dropping admission prices and letting people in for free, I don't know what else can be done," he said. "I don't even think that would work because I truly believe if the people are interested, they will be there."