BY MIKE McCALL
September 24, 2012
“We have to give (fans) something to get behind us for.” STUMP MITCHELL, Southern football coach
When Southern takes on Mississippi Valley State on Thursday night, there’s really no telling how many fans will show up to A.W. Mumford Stadium.
As the Jaguars’ home and Southwestern Athletic Conference opener in a make-or-break season for the coaching staff, it’s certainly a big game. Then again, it’s on a weeknight, it’s on television, and the Delta Devils aren’t exactly a buzzworthy opponent with a huge following.
“I have not spoken with a single person — and these are people who have been affiliated with the school for 20 or 30 years — who has said, ‘Look, here’s about how many you can expect,’ ” Athletic Director William Broussard said. “We’re going to open the doors, tailgate and let folks in.”
While no one can say what the turnout will be this week or this season, it’s a safe bet that it won’t be what it used to be.
As Southern’s reputation as a football power has slipped, attendance has slid with it.
According to the NCAA’s online database, which goes back to 1998, Southern ranked in the top five of the Football Championship Subdivision for home attendance from 1998-2005, leading the nation in 2000 and having four years with an average crowd greater than 22,000.
Only once in that time frame (2002) did SU slip below an average of 19,000, and longtime Jaguars fans, like season ticket holder Willie Hughes, remember the heyday well.
“The stadium was packed. It was like 18 to 22,000 at every game,” Hughes said. “That was when we were really winning. As far as tailgating, if you didn’t get up here early, like 10 o’clock in the morning, it was hard to get on campus. It might take you two hours because it was just that bad trying to get there.”
“It’s a big difference,” Hughes said. “It really has declined.”
Southern hasn’t cracked the 19,000 average since 2005, and over the past three seasons, it has ranked Nos. 15, 22 and 22 in FCS attendance, with averages of less than 14,000.
Season ticket sales have fallen as well. According to data provided by the SU ticket office, sales have dropped every year since 2000, the earliest year for which it has data.
Hughes said that of the fans who used to sit near him at games, many don’t purchase tickets anymore.
Since arriving earlier this year, Broussard and his staff have set about trying to reverse that trend through advertising, group rate deals, partnerships with corporate sponsors and other promotions.
He said sales were ahead of last year’s pace until the ticket office was forced to close for nine days (partly due to Hurricane Isaac), and he now expects them to come out about even.
But there’s only so much SU can do on the business end.
Many factors go into slumping crowd size, such as the 2003 price raise that helped fund improvements to Mumford Stadium but led to the largest drop (906) in season ticket sales in recent history.
There’s also the rotation of popular games against Jackson State and Florida A&M to other sites, and the Jaguars’ biggest game, the annual Bayou Classic against Grambling, doesn’t count toward home attendance.
But there’s an undeniable parallel trend: losing.
Southern’s last four SWAC titles came in 1997-99 and 2003. From 1997-2004, SU lost more than four games only once (2002). Over the past seven seasons, the Jaguars have lost five or more games six times, with records of 2-9 and 4-7 in the past two years.
The quickest way to resurrect the crowds of the glory days is to bring back the success of the glory days.
“All it would take is winning two or three games in a row, and attendance would pick up tremendously,” Hughes said. “It would change overnight, because people would be wanting to come back. It would be just that simple.”
That fact isn’t lost on SU coach Stump Mitchell, who knows Thursday is an audition.
“I think Southern fans are excited about football being back in season, and I think they’re going to come out,” he said. “I think they’re going to get behind us, but we have to give them something to get behind us for. We have to come out playing.”
While winning is likely to bring more attention and support, those aren’t the outcomes the Jaguars need the most.
After a nonconference loss to New Mexico, Southern is still unblemished in the SWAC, and with current division leader Texas Southern banned from the postseason, Thursday is a big opportunity to get off on the right foot — especially against a Valley team that has defeated the Jaguars only twice in the last 20 years.
“Whether we play in front of one person, 1,000, 10,000 or 20,000, there’s a game we have to win on the field to get ourselves 1-0 in the conference,” Broussard said.