Column: Missouri football is back. Will its fans be back with it?

Declining attendance numbers at MU football games have been some of the lowest in the Southeastern Conference, even after last year’s mid-season revival.
MU fans express anguish and disbelief in the final moments of the fourth quarter after the Tigers gave up their six-point lead at Faurot Field on Sept. 17, 2016 Maneater File Photo

Some of the images were too daunting to ignore, those capturing a lone fan or two in a barren desert of empty bleachers at Memorial Stadium. They made their way around Twitter every Saturday in the fall of 2017. By the end of college football season, they had become the norm at MU.

Barry Odom led Missouri football to its first winning record in three seasons last year, rallying the Tigers to finish 7-6 after a disastrous 1-5 start. Although strides are being taken to improve the program further, one aspect of game days that has not recovered since 2014 is attendance at games, particularly by students.

Attendance numbers have dropped at a staggering rate since Mizzou won 11 games and an SEC East title in 2014. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “The average home crowd fell from 65,120 in 2015 to 52,236 in 2016.” Even a winning record could not stop attendance from dwindling once again last season to an average of 51,490 per home game.

As a result of this drop in attendance, Mizzou football revenue has decreased 17 percent, contributing to the MU athletics department’s first year in debt as a whole since joining the SEC, with expenses totaling $4.5 million more than its profit.

When attendance didn’t even fully revive itself during a six-game winning streak to end the regular season, it has to beg the question: Do MU students care about their football team?

There are many factors that may have contributed to Mizzou’s football attendance woes over the past few seasons, with the most obvious being poor performance on the field.

Long-time coach Gary Pinkel, who was replaced by Odom in 2016, consistently placed Mizzou near the top of the Big 12 conference and SEC, earning bowl game appearances in 10 out of the 15 years he helmed the Tigers.

This consistency has lacked as of late, with only one bowl appearance in the last three seasons. That part’s a pretty simple calculation.

It is surprising, however, that MU students choose to skip out on games. This is far from the norm in the SEC, dubbed by many as the premier college football conference. Even the lowly Tennessee Volunteers, who did not win a single game in conference play last year, had higher attendance numbers than Missouri.

MU junior Ashlyn White believes other factors besides losing games are to blame for the low attendance numbers.

“[I wouldn’t go] if I was too tired or didn’t feel like standing in the heat,” White said. “I remember last year I would be leaving at halftime because it would be so hot outside, and then in November, I went to a game that was really cold, so I left.”

Another MU junior, Brandon Cupello, blames external engagements and the Tigers’ scheduling for the empty seats at Memorial Stadium.

“[If I have] work, or if it’s a bad team coming in ... I won’t go to the cupcake games,” he said.

Extreme weather and lopsided matchups are reasons to watch the Tigers from home, but it remains puzzling that teams such as Florida and Oregon, playing in hotter and colder average temperatures than Missouri, respectively, were able to draw bigger crowds than the Tigers in 2017 despite winning the same amount (Oregon) or even fewer games (Florida).

Can you imagine if Florida or Ole Miss — just to name two teams who struggled last year — or any number of SEC schools were caught with that photo of a virtually empty student section in the third quarter? Missouri may not be an Alabama or Auburn, where football is religion — but Missourians are supposed to be stubbornly proud of their state at the very least, and they have a program representing that pride that’s been one win shy of the national championship game twice in the last decade.

Can’t MU students show a little love?

The culture surrounding Missouri football is decaying with every season attendance drops; if the win totals continue to increase and the seats filled aren’t there to match, maybe Missouri’s name doesn’t belong among the bluebloods of the SEC. There are plenty of schools further southeast who would be eager to sport the mantle.

Missouri football has a lot of work to do this season if it hopes to build on last year’s promising finish. Tiger fans have only one job.

Show up.

Edited by Bennett Durando |

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