By Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Aside from the Byrd Stadium scoreboards, the most alarming sight for Maryland's supporters during Saturday's 32-31 loss to Middle Tennessee was the stadium's upper deck, where large sections were empty or only sprinkled with fans.
For much of this decade, the Terrapins either filled or came close to filling the entire stadium, even to watch less attractive or non-competitive opponents. But that has changed. Increasing mediocrity on the field -- the Terrapins have not finished a season ranked in the top 25 since 2003 -- has coincided with a steady decline in attendance.
Season ticket sales have slowed. Long-term commitments for new luxury suites have stalled. And a once-intimidating and raucous venue may be becoming less of a factor for visiting teams.
"I guess if you are going to point the finger at anybody, you should probably point it at us," Maryland defensive lineman Deege Galt said. "We are the ones not winning football games and not putting people in the stands."
Saturday's announced attendance of 43,167 was the smallest Byrd Stadium crowd since 2002. What's more, in just two games this season Maryland has already had two of the five smallest Byrd Stadium crowds since the start of the 2003 season.
The first two home opponents this season -- Middle Tennessee and division I-AA James Madison -- hailed from the Sun Belt Conference and Colonial Athletic Association, respectively, and lacked sizzle. But that is not uncommon for early-season schedules, and Maryland's average attendance for its first two home games this season was the lowest since 2001, Coach Ralph Friedgen's first season.
The economic downturn has caused fans nationwide to reevaluate how they spend their money, and that has been cited as one reason why Maryland received long-term commitments for only 41 of the 64 new luxury suites that were created for this season. But season ticket sales started to lag before the economy took a turn for the worse.
Maryland's season ticket sales have declined each year since the 2005 season, according to numbers provided by the university. The school sold 31,661 season tickets in 2005, but just 26,774 this season. Those totals represent all season tickets, including those for sponsors, lifetime members and recruits, among others. That allotment is consistent each year and makes up less than 10 percent of the total.
"Any time you see a decline like that, it is a concern," said Brian Ullmann, Maryland's senior associate athletic director for external operations. "It is a complicated mix of reasons, and we try to address those. The economy, wins and losses, customer service when they get here. If we show them a good time, they will come back."
This season, Maryland significantly lowered season ticket prices for seats at the very top of the upper deck, to $135 per ticket for the Terrapins' seven home games. It also offered packages for three games -- a marquee game against Virginia Tech, either Middle Tennessee or James Madison and another game -- and sold about 1,000 of those packages at $78 for upper-deck seats and $129 for the lower level.
Season tickets on the lower level cost $205 or $295, and a family four-pack for seats in the upper level costs $500. Single-game tickets for the first two games cost $27 and $38. For the remaining five games, those tickets will cost $30 and $48. The athletic department announced last month that the Nov. 14 game against Virginia Tech is sold out.
But results on the field remain an issue. After winning 31 games in his first three seasons, Friedgen is in danger of posting his fourth losing season in six years. What's more, Friedgen has a 30-30 record against division I-A competition since the start of the 2004 season. And Saturday's loss represented Maryland's first home loss to a team outside a power conference since 1997.
When asked whether attendance is a concern, Friedgen cited the economy but added: "As this team improves and as we grow as a team, hopefully we will start winning some games. That will change that. Obviously they want to come and see a team that is being successful, and I understand that, too."
Several players echoed those remarks and also said they welcome fan support but are neither concerned nor disappointed by the lack of fans in the stadium.
"We've got to do things to keep them here," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "We have a bunch of young guys who really don't understand why people would jump off [the bandwagon] this early in the season. But people are going to react how they want to."
Said wide receiver Ronnie Tyler, "I feel like the true fans are behind us, and that's really the only thing that we're concerned about."
John L. Young, a member of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents who attended Saturday's game, said Friedgen's teams have a history of slow starts and "I am hoping it's the same situation this time. I hope that this is the low point and the team starts winning again. That's not to say I don't have a lot of frustration and disappointment over the way it has gone, which I do."
Longtime fan Brad Tomaski of Rockville said he is frustrated but hopeful about the direction of the program and will never give up his season tickets, which he has had for six years.
"The finger can be pointed at the team or the program or the athletic department when we really need to not point but [instead] look at ourselves as fans," he said. "Fridge probably pulled one of the best first-year-bring-back-your-alma-mater-from-the-ashes coaching jobs. He set the bar high, which is great, but people became too fair weather and thought it would be like this every year. Guess what? It's not."
Offensive lineman Paul Pinegar compared the diminishing attendance numbers to when a student brings home his grades and "you got a D on your chemistry test, and your parents just look at you," he said. "But if you bring home an A, they are standing up, clapping for you."
But the empty seats did not go unnoticed by Middle Tennessee's players. Cornerback Alex Suber told the Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro, Tenn., after Saturday's game that the 2008 victory over Maryland was "great because our fans were so loud. But it was quieter here. Those 40,000 or so fans aren't quite what they say they are."