Rabalais: Empty seats reflect poorly on LSU

Tiger Stadium’s Death Valley nickname may never have been better-earned than Saturday for the LSU-Florida game.

It was scorching hot, it was dry, and in some noticeable areas, it was devoid of human life.

Every ticket was long sold, attendance was announced at 92,980. But in actuality, there were only about 78,000 fans in the stands, according to Athletic Director Joe Alleva. The atmosphere, not at all aided by Florida’s sleep-inducing offense, made for one of the most tepid big-game atmospheres in Tiger Stadium in a long time.

Like most problems, there was more than one reason for the 15,000 no shows. “It was the perfect storm,” said LSU’s Eddie Nunez, assistant athletic director for operations.

Weather : Temperature was listed as 85 degrees for the 2:30 p.m. kickoff, with the thermometer peaking at 89 degrees on the afternoon. That doesn’t sound all that hot, but coupled with the humidity and lack of cloud cover early in the game, Tiger Stadium was a broiler. Though Nunez said the spike in temperature didn’t result in a spike in fans needing transport to hospitals with heat-related issues, several readers told stories of fans camped like refugees along the concourses beneath the stands simply because they couldn’t stand the heat (especially on the sun-baked east side). One suspects some fans got a feel for the heat at their tailgates or before leaving home and decided not to venture out.

Traffic : The ones who did go were snared in near-gridlock conditions on approach to the LSU campus. The inadequate roads leading to LSU — two-lane roads like Dalrymple Drive and Highland Road and Nicholson Drive south of LSU — were never designed for conveying 100,000-plus folks to campus on a game day, especially when most of them arrive late.

Parking : Alleva and Nunez said LSU has lost 2,000 free parking spaces since last season to various campus projects, among them new recreation sports fields for LSU students near the levee that chewed up lots of spots. With fewer places to park, Nunez said, some fans were directed to keep going. Some probably wound up far off campus, some may have gone home.

Logjams : Monday, Alleva was studying an aerial photo of a huge swarm of LSU fans trying to enter at gates on Tiger Stadium’s southwest corner, unable or unwilling to venture a few yards north to comparatively empty gates near midfield. Nunez said the south stadium construction project has eliminated the old Portal B entrance off South Stadium Drive, aggravating the problem.

TV: Not only do LSU fans hate day games like they were vampires, the fact that every LSU game can be seen in high-definition splendor at home, where there are no lines for the bathroom or the fridge, is a huge part of the problem.

Midterms : LSU’s student section had several almost empty sections. My sources (OK, my daughter who goes to LSU) said she and many of her friends skipped the game to study for midterms that started Monday.

Apathy : Face it, Tiger fans. Many of you are spoiled. If it’s not the “good” perfect storm (night kickoff, nice weather, top-flight opponent) many of you find too many reasons not to go.

Wherever you come down on the attendance issue, the people in the stands (or not) do reflect on LSU and its pride-and-joy football program. When CBS’s announcers (admittedly CBS and its 2:30 p.m. kickoffs are part of the problem) mention the empty seats, it’s a problem. If you say it’s a non-issue, then don’t get in a snit when some national media crank says Tiger Stadium’s legendary status as a death pit for opponents is a myth.

Of course, this is not just an LSU problem. Average college football attendance has fallen in three of the past four years. New LSU President King Alexander said during a radio interview Tuesday night that football attendance was a major topic of a meeting Monday in Atlanta of Southeastern Conference presidents and chancellors.

“We’re all working on this diligently,” Alexander said. “No. 1 is traffic flow, getting in and out easier. No. 2, make sure students and alumni and friends of the university have easy flow in and out. Security has made this more difficult.

“All of this gives us a whole new set of challenges we’re working on for the next game and next season.”

Tiger Stadium likely won’t be full for LSU’s next home game Oct. 26 against Furman no matter what. The focus is on LSU’s Nov. 23 game with Texas A&M, also likely to be a 2:30 p.m. CBS game.

While the weather should help, Alleva and Nunez said they are working on traffic flow (Alleva said he wants to hire more city police to direct traffic), continuing to search for more free parking (freeing up some pay lots on the east side of campus would be a nice gesture) and opening more stadium gates.

Once construction is completed in 2014, Nunez said, Tiger Stadium will have more gates than ever. Alleva said LSU is working toward more WiFi access in the stadium and will press law enforcement to reinstate contraflow traffic routes into and out of the campus that were inexplicably nixed several years ago.

Other than that, the best thing Alleva can do is plead for fans to come out. It’s a huge investment in time and money, but LSU football won’t be LSU football without its fans.

“Our fans are so important to helping our team succeed,” Alleva said. “Hopefully they will come out for our last three games.”

Notice he said he was hopeful, not certain.