Terps ask: Is anyone home?

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tens of thousands of fans in attendance and a regional television audience will affix their eyes on a football field inside Byrd Stadium on Saturday night. At the same time, Maryland officials, bowl game representatives and some players will sneak a peek at something else: the number of fans in the seats.

With Maryland in the midst of a resurgence and Coach Ralph Friedgen guaranteed to at least finish out his contract next season, one of the biggest questions hovering over the football team is how long it will take disenchanted fans to return on Saturdays after last year's disastrous 2-10 campaign. The answer has far-reaching consequences and will affect everything from the revenue streams to the bowl selection process to the quality of Maryland's home-field advantage.

"It's a crucial concern for all of us," said Chris Boyer, Maryland's senior associate athletic director/administration. "We have an upside in football revenue, there is no question. . . . Football tickets is one of those areas where not only do we have that upside, but we need that upside to do what we want to do as a football program and an entire department."

Even a cursory look at Saturday's matchup against Florida State reveals appealing elements: a thriving home team, a nationally recognized opponent and a chance to stay alive in the ACC Atlantic Division race.

"That's what we wanted here, isn't it?" Friedgen said of a game Maryland has billed as a "playoff-like" environment. "We need to support it. I don't know how much better it can get. We're in this thing, we have to win Saturday night to stay in it and we're playing a very good football team on prime time on ABC. I hope they want to be a part of this game" and not stay home to watch.

But a variety of factors - on-field struggles, a lackluster early-season home schedule and a market flush with competing weekend activities - have conspired against Maryland's ability to pack Byrd Stadium. The economic downturn continues to affect ticket sales at schools nationwide. So as Maryland prepares for Saturday's contest against the Seminoles - its most significant home game in at least two seasons - the school is preparing to welcome a less-than-capacity crowd.

A tough sell?

School officials are projecting a turnout of between 45,000 and 47,000 fans at the 54,000-seat stadium. That includes 10,000 students and fewer than 20,000 season ticket holders. Some 2,000 individuals will be given free tickets because of the school's partnership with local military bases and other military service organizations. Only a few hundred fans are expected to buy tickets Saturday, which is not uncommon in this market.

Season ticket sales at Maryland have declined five straight seasons. Last season, school officials said at the time, Maryland fell some $600,000 short of its season ticket sales projection numbers. This year, Maryland sold a little more than 19,000 season tickets - down from 22,000 in 2009 and falling short of the school's projection of 20,000. What's more, Maryland has fallen short in single-game ticket-sale projections for all of its home games this season.

Maryland also has had trouble filling the 64 luxury suites that were unveiled during the 2009 season. It was reported earlier this season that only about two-thirds of the suites had been leased, the same percentage as in 2009. Maryland did not provide the most recent numbers.

The smallest crowd of Friedgen's 10-year tenure at Maryland, 33,254, attended the Terrapins' Sept. 25 victory over Florida International. A 62-14 homecoming rout of Wake Forest on Oct. 30 drew just 39,063.

Maryland advertises on television and radio and in print and online publications. It has players encourage fans to turn out in voice messages relayed to season ticket holders, an official said. This week alone, Friedgen and Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, unprompted, have on multiple occasions attempted to stir up excitement for a large turnout.

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