When I was a student, back in the ancient days of 2000 when Drew Brees was slinging footballs at will around Ross-Ade Stadium, Purdue did not have an attendance problem. There were 11,000+ students in the stands for every game and multiple sellouts each season. That time paved the way for the most recent round of major improvements such as the Ross-Ade pavilion, the wider concourse, and pretty much everything else. It looked like the good times would never end as an expansion to 80,000 seats with an upper deck seemed possible.
Fast forward 15 years. We have this:
General public football season tickets sold (as of 7/31/2015): 14,314. Mackey Arena capacity: 14,846.— Hammer & Rails (@HammerAndRails) August 2, 2015
Yes, the general public seats currently sold for Ross-Ade Stadium could fit in Mackey Arena with room to spare just six weeks before the home opener. If we had an Arena League that would be fantastic. The students aren't much better. There have been less than 5,000 tickets sold to students thus far (4,652 student tickets according to the Lafayette Journal & Courier), meaning roughly 19,000 tickets have been sold for a stadium that seats 57,236 people.
This is absolutely pathetic and it is an embarrassment that it has come to this. Worse yet, Morgan Burke has tried everything possible to get fans in the door. You can currently buy a season ticket for less than $100. You can't even look at Ohio Stadium for less than $75 for a single game on game day against their in-state MACrifice. Their lowest single ticket price for any home game on the secondary market (not through the school) is $72 vs. Hawaii. I haven't even mentioned that they can fit twice as many people into their stadium compared to ours.
But they are still the defending National Champions and a football powerhouse every year that would sellout a foosball match at Ohio Stadium. That makes it an unfair comparison. Still, I am willing to bet moribund programs like Indiana, Illinois, and Northwestern have sold more overall season tickets than Purdue.
I think the biggest problem I have is that the athletic department continues to not see this as a problem. As long as the bottom line is met (and it can be with the ridiculous amount of TV money Purdue gets as a member of the Big Ten) those in power simply don't care. As Joe Tiller said, Morgan Burke really is not a football guy:
"Morgan and I, we get along..... fine. My single biggest criticism of Morgan...is that he wasn't a football guy. He didn't have the skills or the background or the knowledge to evaluate what was going on in the football program."
Tiller has a point. Purdue had a chance to keep things going with what Tiller built from 1997 to 2004 when Purdue went to a bowl game every season, won a Big Ten championship, had three other nine win seasons, and was at least in the hunt for the Big Ten more than it was not. Burke and company failed to capitalize, and now we have what we have.
Right now, Purdue has the worst thing facing it: apathy. Fans don't care to show up because we're getting blown out by MAC teams at home. Even the Colletto era didn't have that. The Big Ten Network, as seen by their coverage of Purdue during media days, doesn't care and is only contractually obligated to cover the Boilers because we're in the Big Ten. There is absolutely nothing exciting about the program. Even Indiana, the worst major conference program in the country, had a 2,000 yard rushing, an exciting offense that scores points (when its quarterback isn't injured) and a dedicated fan base that (for the most part) shows up on Saturdays. They had over 41,000 people on average last season. Purdue was barely over 35,000.
We're at a crisis level right now. There is no Notre Dame game to boost attendance this year. Burke has tried lowering ticket prices, serving beer, removing seats (the removal of the South End Zone bleachers took out about 5,000 seats), and just about every gimmick you can try and it is just not working. This is not a situation where gimmicks are going to get fans back. There is no reason to care because the program has been fading for a solid decade to where it is right now.
Winning is the sole cure, and that is why there is a ton of pressure on the coaching staff headed into 2015. I like coach Hazell and still think he has things on the right track, but the Boilers haven't proven they can beat even bad teams, but there needs to be tangible improvement in 2015. The schedule is tougher, but it not impossible to win 6 or 7 games. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a single thing that shows opponents should be afraid of beating us. Every single opponent views Purdue as a winnable game, and why wouldn't they? We've lost home games to MAC teams by three touchdowns for two years in a row. We've lost to INDIANA two years in a row. These are just a few of the reasons that attendance could easily slip below 30,000 fans per game this year.
So what can help?
1. Purdue makes a statement with a win at Marshall. Few expect us to beat a very good offense like the Thundering Herd has. Even the perpetual optimist that I am thinks that Marshall is fully capable of winning by four touchdowns. If Purdue pulls off a win it would be a major step forward as it would easily be the best win of the Hazell era.
2. Nebraska is coming. There is no Notre Dame at home this year, so Nebraska is your best home for a big crowd. Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana aren't bringing it.
3. The Virginia Tech game is a 3:30pm kickoff. Much to Morgan's chagrin.
4. Purdue plays a decent non-conference schedule, meaning a 3-1 or even dream 4-0 mark would be a great sign Purdue is moving forward and ready to compete. Purdue could easily be 1-3 when Big Ten play starts. It could also be 4-0 because none of the four teams are unbeatable. If Purdue goes 3-1 there will be some definite interest for the Big Ten season.
5. Morgan goes all-in on pushing football. This is unlikely, but we're getting close. The coaching staff is getting paid like a real coaching staff there are pending facilities improvements that are badly needed. There needs to be a full commitment, however, from the athletic department instead of the current thinking where all sports are created equal. I love our other teams. I think it is great that we have a world class diving program. David Boudias and Steele Johnsons don't pay the bills, however. Football (and to a smaller extent men's basketball) does. Men's basketball will always do its part, but there needs to be recognition that football is just more important than any other sport on campus. That makes that bottom line easier to meet.
We're only 41 days away from the home opener. I will be there, and I hope I am not alone.