Although increases in college football attendance have slowed to a crawl around the country, three area Division I schools appear to be headed for record-breaking crowds this year.
Tuesday, Maryland sold out of season tickets for the first time in school history. Virginia already has surpassed last year's season ticket sales by 4,000 and Navy reached last year's total with more than three weeks to go before its opener.
Rather than indicating a general rise in college football attendance, sales at area schools appear to reflect the recent and anticipated success of their programs.
"I don't think it's a trend in college football," Maryland Athletic Director Dick Dull. "I think probably the main reason (for Maryland's ticket sales) is the No. 1 preseason rankings."
Maryland is ranked No. 1 in Sport magazine's preseason poll.
"People like to be associated with winners," said Jim West, associate athletic director at Virginia. "On Sunday morning, they like to say they saw Virginia play yesterday and they're a good team."
Virginia, which had its most successful season in 30 years last season, winning the Peach Bowl in its first bowl appearance, has sold 14,000 season tickets. Officials said they expect season ticket sales to reach 15,000-16,000. The old record, set last year, was 10,000. Virginia will open on Sept. 14 at home against Virginia Military Institute.
At Navy -- which will open on Sept. 7 against North Carolina in Annapolis -- season ticket sales have reached 8,000, passing last year's mark of 7,600. Although Navy went 4-6-1 last year, Heisman Trophy contender Napoleon McCallum -- who missed most of last season with an injury -- is returning for his final season.
Nationwide, although attendance for senior colleges had risen an average of more than 2 percent a year from 1978 to 1982, it dropped .6 of a percent in 1983 and rose less than 1 percent in 1984. When the College Football Association negotiated an independent television package last summer that increased greatly the number of televised games, many college officials worried that attendance would drop as fans stayed home instead of buying tickets. It's too soon to tell how attendance has been affected around the country, but area schools have enjoyed a boom at the very time a decline seemed likely.
Dull also cited Maryland's home schedule -- which includes games against Penn State, West Virginia and North Carolina -- as a factor in the high sales. Maryland also plays 1983 national champion Miami in Baltimore.
In addition to North Carolina, Navy will play Air Force and Pittsburgh as part of its five-game home schedule. Virginia has Navy, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and North Carolina -- in addition to VMI -- on its six-game home schedule.
Maryland, which stopped selling season tickets when sales reached 22,500, also has sold out of individual-game tickets for the Sept. 7 season opener against Penn State and the Sept. 21 West Virginia game. About 2,000 tickets remain for the Nov. 2 homecoming game against North Carolina. Tickets still are available for Duke (Oct. 26), the Miami game in Baltimore (Nov. 9) and Virginia (Nov. 29).
Virginia has stopped selling the $15 individual-game tickets for the VMI game until the final number of season tickets is known. At Navy, officials expect the Oct. 12 Air Force game to sell out.
The ticket-sales boom does not seem to be a one-year phenomenon. Virginia set a home attendance record last year with a season total of 232,807 over six games -- an average of 38,801 in 42,000-seat Scott Stadium. Five years ago, in 1980, Virginia drew 150,107 in five games for a 30,021 average. The big jump came between 1982 and 1983, when attendance went from 151,805 to 212,722.
"Basically, the main thing that brings people out is being successful," said Virginia's West. "The anticipation of another good year has people excited. The same thing happened with basketball here. It started picking up in 1972, and by 1975 you couldn't get season tickets.
"Success is something new for us in football. The atmosphere is completely different. It used to be a subdued group that looked forward to the socialization. People used to sit in their cars in the parking lots a lot longer. Now it's completely opposite. People still tailgate, but they don't tailgate as long. People stay longer, too. They don't leave at halftime."
Maryland had a good year in 1984, drawing 209,675 in five games (a 41,935 average), but the record at 45,000-seat Byrd Stadium was set in 1983, when the average was a standing-room-only 46,403. Attendance at Maryland has seesawed in the last five years, going from a 36,177 average in 1980 down to 31,100 in 1981 and back up to 39,325 in 1982 before the record crowds in 1983.
Navy's attendance last year (a 27,293 average) also was its second-highest, behind 1983, when the average was 28,155. In 1976, Navy averaged 19,739.