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Analysis: BYU had a not-so-crowded house as football attendance hits new low

PROVO — Earlier this football season, BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns to help bring a merciful end to the Cougars' soul-sucking seven-game losing streak.

The announced attendance for that 41-20 win over San Jose State at LaVell Edwards Stadium: 46,451.

Depending on your perspective, that number will elicit a different reaction.

Most college football programs at any level would be thrilled to get that many fans’ seats into their stadium seats. After all, the average home attendance in 2016 for 128 FBS teams was 43,070, according to NCAA records.

That BYU crowd would be considered a bursting-at-the-seams audience size for rival Utah. The Pac-12 program’s attendance this season at Rice-Eccles Stadium ranged from a standing-room-only crowd of 46,022 (vs. Colorado) to a low of 45,881 (against San Jose State, coincidentally).

Smallest BYU home football crowdsInfogramThe Utes are now exploring a stadium expansion. Utah has logged 51 consecutive sellouts — including 48 standing-room only crowds — in its 45,807-seat facility.

Which brings us back to BYU’s game against San Jose State of the MWC on Oct. 28.

That particular Cougar crowd was in the vicinity of what a bunch of Power 5 programs averaged in 2016 — from Indiana (43,027), Minnesota (43,814), Stanford (44,142) and Rutgers (44,804) to TCU (45,168), Illinois (45,644), Baylor (45,838), Pittsburgh (46,076), Utah (46,506), Colorado (46,609) and California (46,628).

Schools like Utah State (19,136) and Duke (29,895) could only dream of crowds that size, while programs such as Penn State (100,257), Texas A&M (101,917) and Ohio State (107,278) might think it felt like a spring ball game.

And for BYU?

It was a very rare sight to see that much empty space in the bleachers.

That was the smallest crowd to attend a BYU football game in Provo since only 36,343 fans watched Jim McMahon pass for 282 yards and three TDs and saw Kyle Whittingham record 10 tackles in a 31-7 win over New Mexico on Oct. 31, 1981.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, right, and San Jose State Spartans head coach Brent Brennan meet following NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

For perspective, more people showed up for a different game in the smaller Cougar Stadium that year than attended the BYU-SJSU matchup this season. A crowd of 47,163 — for a stadium with a capacity of 45,000 with added bleachers — witnessed BYU double up Utah 56-28 in McMahon’s final game on his college campus on Nov. 21, 1981.

Until this season, just one other crowd at LES since then — the stadium was expanded in 1982 — had dipped below 50,000. Only 49,008 attended Gary Crowton’s debut in 2001. It obviously didn't help that the 70-35 win over Tulane took place on Aug. 25 before students arrived for fall semester.

Don't blame San Jose State for the small crowd this year.

There were other poorly attended games, which shouldn’t be all that surprising considering the Cougars went 4-9 and slogged through the season with one of the nation’s worst offenses.

Only 51,355 fans showed up to see the Cougars host UMass in the home finale two Saturdays ago. That was the fourth-smallest crowd to attend a BYU game since the stadium was expanded in 1982.

Considering the results, you’ll have a hard time finding Cougar fans who wish they would have attended that demoralizing 16-10 loss to a 4-7 Minuteman team.

Incidentally, UMass also drew the third-fewest fans in the expansion era — 51,190 in 2016.

The Savannah State crowd of 52,123 in 2014 rounds out the bottom five.

Those LES crowds pale in comparison to the numbers when BYU played enticing draws like Wagner (56,015 in 2015) and Idaho State (60,043 in 2011).

Throw in the season-opening Portland State crowd (55,427, 11th lowest since expansion), and it isn’t surprising that the 2017 BYU team had the worst home attendance mark in the 35 years of the bigger stadium.

The average BYU crowd this season was 56,267, which is 874 fans a game fewer than the previous low of 57,141 in 2014.

LaVell Edwards Stadium attendanceInfogram(Note: Seating capacity at LaVell Edwards Stadium was over 65,000 from 1982 until 2003 when the addition of luxury club seating in the east stands lowered the max to 64,045. The overall capacity is now 63,470 after reductions in 2010 and '11 improved wheelchair access.)

Since the expansion 35 years ago, BYU has only averaged below 60,000 fans six times, including the past four seasons. The other two relatively subpar attendance years happened at the end of the Crowton era (58,475, 2004) and the beginning of Bronco Mendenhall’s regime (58,204, 2005).

The worst post-expansion attendance season in LaVell Edwards’ tenure was his final campaign: 60,619 in 2000. Interestingly, that was a huge drop off from the previous year’s average of 65,185. BYU experienced a similar attendance dive earlier in the 1990s. After going 6-6 in 1993 (65,446), the Cougars drew 60,819 a game in 1994.

BYU’s attendance jumped more than a thousand a game in 1985 (65,407) after winning the national championship in 1984 (64,157). The 2007 season was the high for Mendenhall's 10-year tenure as the Cougars averaged 64,497, up 6,000 from his first season two years earlier.

That upswing might offer hope that fans will return en masse.

BYU enjoyed its best attendance mark in 1990. An average of 66,002 fans that season watched a guy named Ty Detmer lead the Cougars to a 28-21 win over No. 1 Miami and to home victories over Washington State, San Diego State, Colorado State, New Mexico and Utah State in a splendid Heisman Trophy season.

Twenty-seven years later, nearly 10,000 fewer fans showed up per game to watch BYU football games in Detmer’s second and last season as offensive coordinator.

While attendance hit a new low this season, it’s been a trend at BYU even before Kalani Sitake took over as head coach two years ago.

The Cougars haven’t averaged more than 61,225 fans since going independent in 2011.

That’s good for parking and elbow-room issues, but not so good for revenue and status.

Though BYU sold out the Utah game this fall, it’s probably telling of the state of the struggling program that more than 2,000 seats went unoccupied against a highly ranked Big 10 opponent (Wisconsin, 61,143) and there were nearly 4,000 open spots for an always-anticipated matchup against Boise State (59,753).

Barring a surprising shift in fans’ purchasing decisions and perhaps a renewed interest in the football team, next season could be even worse. BYU’s 2018 home schedule doesn’t include a big-name game. California, a Pac-12 team that has only one winning season in six years, and rival Utah State are the big draws in Provo next fall. The other opponents who’ll visit LaVell Edwards Stadium: McNeese State, Hawaii, Northern Illinois and New Mexico State.

(In fairness to BYU’s scheduling, the road lineup looks fun: Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State, UMass and Utah.)

But that lackluster home schedule isn’t one that seems likely to help the lagging attendance.

What will help?

Winning, a high-powered offense and top-tier opponents would definitely be a good starting point.

Who knows? Maybe chocolate-covered Cougar Tails — in addition to the popular maple-flavored doughnuts — might help, too.

Official attendance statistics haven't been released yet, but it's likely BYU will again end up in the top 35, as has been the case for 35 years. It's also worth noting that college football attendance has dropped overall — 426 fewer fans per game in 2016 compared to 2015, the NCAA reported. To that point, BYU was ranked 28th in the nation last year despite having one of its lowest totals in the expansion era.

Nonetheless, it's an alarming situation for a football-proud program that used to have few issues filling its stadium.