With Rutgers rolling to a convincing 35-10 win over Temple on Saturday, and staring the prospect of a 9-0 start dead in the eye with two winnable home games against Kent State and Army coming up, one wonders if a (relatively) reluctant periphery of local bandwagon fans outside of the program's hardcore core are ready to put their Block R magnets on their cars once again. Anecdotally, that seems to be the case, with friends, family, and colleagues increasingly asking about the team, and some even already angling for my season tickets for the Louisville game. There is little doubt that will be a tough ticket, with everyone's memory of a stadium bursting to capacity in 2006 (the program could have easily sold 70,000 tickets to that game) coming to mind.
It is important to keep in mind peer programs as a basis of comparison. Let's not forget that Rutgers just outdrew Temple in Philadelphia, and has played meek-ish out of conference schedules during the past few seasons. Here are the latest NCAA average attendance figures for Big East schools:
39. South Florida - 51629
40. Louisville - 51610
42. Rutgers - 49912
59. Pittsburgh - 41938
62. Syracuse - 37363 (note: just ahead of Maryland and BC)
68. UConn - 35354
77. Cincinnati - 30522 (truly a pathetic number)
79. Temple - 29243
The program is not doing as well as it should be relative to the strength of the team this season, but there are at least some extenuating circumstances, and everyone outside of the top three are faring very poorly. Most importantly, attendance is up big from 2011. NO ONE wanted to see Ohio and NC Central last year, and the fans stayed home for USF out of protest for the big collapse against West Virginia. Home attendance figures certainly have some value as a metric, but overall it's wiser to take the long view and see this season as planting thousands of tiny seeds for the future. We're not an overnight sensation, but there's the steady growth that you want to see, and you know that those students packing the stadium every week are good signs for future fan growth. To expect anything more would be unrealistic, and even if possible, ultimately unsustainable.
What about the crowds for Kent State and Army though? Will a fanbase that has been more than a little fickle about showing up for mediocre opponents pay up for those games? Mid-afternoon starts with good weather will help with the last minute walk-up deciders, which we saw this year with a big crowd for Howard of all games. It is also homecoming, for better or worse. More importantly, past historical evidence suggests that interest will start to peak with the buildup over the next month. Google search data skews young (which actually is good in terms of the long term), but I have argued in the past that it is an ideal proxy for analyzing trends in real time. Does that interest translate into attendance right away though?
Looking at 2006, while you see an increase of interest in October, the real jump was in November, which permanently moved the curve upwards in that respect. Excitement really started to set in after the team shellacked Navy in Annapolis, followed by THE definitive Ray Rice game in Pittsburgh. That highlight, dagger Rice run in the fourth quarter was replayed countless times over the next few weeks, yet Rutgers didn't even sell out for a Sunday night vs. UConn right before Louisville came to town. This year is a little different in that Louisville is not coming to Piscataway for five weeks still, and RU will have to remain unscathed and in one piece until then if the team truly does have designs on reliving history. One can only hope.