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BYU saw an upswing in home football attendance in 2019, thanks to ‘big-time’ opponents, wins and afternoon kickoffs

Largest crowds since 2013 took in BYU football games at LaVell Edwards Stadium last season, as Cougars bucked national trend of falling attendance at college games

BYU fans storm the field after BYU beat USC in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — On the field, the BYU football team doesn’t have much momentum heading into the 2020 season, having lost its last two road games in 2019 to teams most of its fans believe it should have defeated: San Diego State and Hawaii.

BYU’s combined record the past three years — 18 wins, 21 losses — is its worst since 2003-05 when it went 15-20.

At the turnstiles, however, the program is hoping it has turned the corner.

BYU’s average attendance for football games at LaVell Edwards Stadium increased significantly in 2019, thanks to an enticing six-game home schedule that included Utah, USC, Washington, Boise State, fellow independent Liberty and a breather, Idaho State.

The Cougars drew an average of 59,457 fans per game at the 63,470-seat stadium, their highest total since 2013 when an average of 61,255 watched them play Texas, Utah, Georgia Tech, Boise State and two cupcakes — Middle Tennessee State and Idaho State.

What pleased BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe the most, however, was that attendance jumped more than 7,000 fans per game, after 2018’s attendance plummeted to 52,476 on the heels of a 4-9 season in 2017.

“We had a nice increase last year, which was pleasant news compared to many other really good programs,” Holmoe said last month in a roundtable discussion with reporters.

Indeed, BYU was one of the few schools around the country that saw increased attendance, as numbers continue to slide downward nationally. BYU ranked 22nd in the country, just below Iowa State (59,794) and just above USC (59,358) and was No. 2 in the West behind only Washington (68,238).

“I think it is all relative,” Holmoe said. “The important thing is we are not comparing ourselves to other places as much as we are comparing ourselves to ourselves. And I think we have kind of had some ups and downs over the last couple of years, particularly in independence, because it is predicated by your home schedule.”

If only the Cougars could get the Utes, Trojans and Huskies to come every year. They can’t, obviously, but the 2020 slate is still pretty good. BYU hosts the Big Ten’s Michigan State and new Spartans coach Mel Tucker (Colorado’s old coach), the SEC’s Missouri, the American’s Houston and two upper-tier Mountain West teams, Utah State and SDSU.

“I am really optimistic about it,” Holmoe said. “A lot of it has to do with how your team is performing and the teams coming in to play.”

The Cougars went 4-2 at home in 2019, finishing on a three-game home winning streak. Tight end Matt Bushman said it felt like they took strides toward reestablishing their home-field dominance that was missing the previous two seasons when they were a combined 5-7 at LES.

“We are not happy with a mediocre 7-6 season,” Bushman said in a meeting with reporters to discuss his return for his final season of eligibility. “We want to improve on that … and show our fans it is a team worth supporting.”

On the same day that BYU and ESPN announced a new seven-year agreement for the network to televise Cougar home games through 2026, Holmoe said ticket sales for football and men’s basketball provide a significant revenue stream and are “very important” to the athletic department’s bottom line.

“And so when you play USC at home, it is a real nice thing,” he said, while defending BYU’s schedules that some critics believe are too ambitious and also fending off complaints that the new ESPN deal will mean more late-night kickoffs.

“A team of the caliber of USC, that game was not a late-night game,” he continued. “So I think we control a little bit of that, really. … If we are bringing in really big-time teams, that have great pull in the broadcasting of games, and we are very good, those games are not going to be late at night.”

BYU’s Saturday afternoon game against No. 24 USC, which was 2-0 at the time, kicked off at 1:30 p.m. and drew 62,546 fans. By comparison, BYU’s opener against No. 14 Utah on Aug. 29 kicked off at 8:15 p.m. and drew 61,626.

After several BYU fans posted on social media in January that BYU football season ticket prices were being increased, Holmoe was asked if that is true.

“Yeah, I think you can (say) yes there have (been increases),” Holmoe said. “I think it is good to really clarify that. We realize that in this day and age that ticket pricing is super important. And so what we try to do is we look at various spots. So we have seats in sections in the stadium that are increasing (in price). We have some that have remained level. We try to keep it flowing and try to maintain our needed revenue streams, at the same time keeping an eye on our fans and making sure we don’t price them out. … It is an important economic decision that we have to make every year, and we spend days and days on that every year.”

BYU’s average home attendance for football (national ranking in parentheses) as an independent and its home opponents by year

2019 — 59,547 (22nd) — Utah, USC, Washington, Boise State, Liberty, Idaho State

2018 — 52,476 (33rd) — California, McNeese State, Utah State, Hawaii, Northern Illinois, NMSU

2017 — 56,267 (31st) — Portland State, Utah, Wisconsin, Boise State, San Jose State, UMass

2016 — 58,569 (28th) — UCLA, Toledo, Miss State, SUU, UMass, Utah State

2015 — 58,532 (30th) — Boise State, UConn, East Carolina, Cincinnati, Wagner, Fresno State

2014 — 57,141 (31st) — Houston, Virginia, Utah State, Nevada, UNLV, Savannah State

2013 — 61,255 (28th) — Texas, Utah, MTSU, Georgia Tech, Boise State, Idaho State

2012 — 61,161 (26th) — Washington State, Weber State., Hawaii, Utah State, Oregon State, Idaho

2011 — 60,265 (26th) — Utah, Central Florida, Utah State, SJSU, Idaho State, Idaho, NMSU

Note: Capacity of LaVell Edwards Stadium from 2005 to 2009 was 64,045; capacity from 2010 to present is listed as 63,470