GAINESVILLE — When a top-20 Florida team took the field last week at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the Gators were greeted by thousands of amped-up fans.
And a lot of empty seats.
Gators coach Dan Mullen wasn't asked directly about the crowd, but he brought it up anyway, repeating one of the themes of his offseason speaking tour.
"When we sell out the stadium, we win a championship," Mullen said. "It doesn't go the other way."
Mullen backtracked a little Monday, saying he has been pleased with the fan support. But he's right to want more of it — just like every other coach in a sport full of dwindling crowds.
UF's s announced homecoming attendance (80,017) was its smallest home crowd since 1990 … when the stadium's capacity was only 72,000 and it hadn't even been nicknamed the Swamp yet. That figure is down more than 10,000 from UF's 2010 homecoming game, when Mullen was the visiting coach for Mississippi State.
Average attendance at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has dropped each of the last four seasons, from 90,065 in 2015 to 82,427 this year. And with less-than-stellar matchups with South Carolina and Idaho left, don't be surprised if that number falls more.
The problems aren't unique to UF. National college football attendance fell each of the last four years. Power programs like Alabama, Florida State and Penn State have reduced or plan to reduce stadium capacity.
This season, 11 of the 14 SEC schools have announced smaller average home crowds. That list includes No. 1 Alabama and No. 12 Kentucky, which is on track for its best season in four decades.
At FSU, attendance has tumbled since Willie Taggart's debut (75,237). If the current average (69,757) holds, it'll be the first time since 1992 that the average crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium was less than 70,000. And back then, Doak's capacity was only 70,123.
USF's average announced home attendance (34,695) is up from last year (31,401), but the overall trend is still down. From 2007-12, the Bulls announced an average crowd of at least 40,000 every year. The highest since then: 37,539 in 2016.
The slides come despite athletic departments trying creative ways to retain fans, from food courts and beer gardens (UF) to post-game concerts (FSU).
The Tampa Bay Times asked fans to tell us why they are (or aren't) going to games. The most common reason we heard? It's too expensive.
"What I have seen appears to be a big money machine that is slowly choosing to price people out," said Paul Zuccarini, a UF alumnus who travels to a game or two each year from Key Biscayne.
David Gracy agrees.
When the 57-year-old FSU alumnus first bought Seminoles season tickets twenty-plus years ago, they cost about $150 each, including a booster donation. Now they're more than $700.
"Probably what broke the camel's back was the increasingly high amounts of money the boosters required in order to maintain our seats," Gracy said.
Gracy stopped going to games two years ago for other reasons, too, which were among the common complaints we heard.
Because TV partners determine schedules, fans won't learn the kickoff times for some Nov. 17 games (Boston College at FSU, USF at Temple) until Sunday. Six days isn't much time for a North Carolina resident like Gracy to figure out his travel plans to Tallahassee. It's probably not a coincidence that visiting SEC schools are giving back more unsold tickets, as The Gainesville Sun reported over the summer.
Staying at home has become a more attractive option to some. You don't have to worry about sweating out noon kickoffs, driving home after a prime-time game or sitting for four hours in uncomfortable stands.
"Metal bleachers with very limited space," said Darrell Card, a Gainesville resident who has cut his UF games down from four or five a year to one or two.
Many of the fans we heard from are willing to accept those drawbacks — as long as their team is winning.
That's not happening enough at UF or FSU. The Fun 'n' Gun era feels like ancient history for UF fans who expect points, not just victories. The 'Noles need to win two of their final three games to extend their bowl streak to 37 years.
"Bottom line for me," said St. Cloud resident and UF fan Rodney Carroll, "there has to be some hope, man."
If not? That's one more empty seat in the stands.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.