UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Just the other day, Penn State offensive lineman Ty Howle was talking about his excitement for the home opener Saturday at Beaver Stadium, repeating the chorus sung by so many about Penn State's huge crowds.
"We can only imagine how great it's going to be with 108,000 screaming fans behind us," he said.
All of last year, coach Bill O'Brien echoed a similar sentiment -- why would anyone need a bowl game when Beaver Stadium's 108,000 seats provided a bowl-like atmosphere?
These statements make convincing propaganda, as long as the fans come to the games. While no one questions the noisy, chaotic effectiveness of a full Beaver Stadium, the seats have too often gone unsold in recent years at a more worrisome rate than at other top programs, creating a problem for the athletic department.
Facing financial woes brought on by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and NCAA sanctions that could deepen in the ensuing years, attendance will matter at Beaver Stadium this season and the capacity crowds of the past could be hard to replicate, particularly if last year's numbers and the ticket packages being peddled by the athletic department this season are any indication.
In July, athletic director Dave Joyner noted Penn State's attendance concerns. He framed these anxieties multiple times as part of a national problem.
"If you look at the curve that has been going on at Beaver Stadium over the last several years, it's been a steady line down, which it has been across the country," he said.
This national decline in college football attendance is true, but Penn State's drop has been especially precipitous.
Penn State averaged 96,730 fans per game in 2012, the fifth-highest total of any school in Division I-A. As promising as that number may be, it masks a problem. Whereas the average Division I-A university experienced an attendance decline of 1.2 percent in 2012 from the previous year, Penn State's average attendance declined 4.6 percent. Comparing last year's attendance to five years previous, 2007, Penn State was down 11.2 percent. The average Division I-A program was down 2.9 percent.
Another telling statistic was its percentage of fullness. With a capacity of 106,572, according to Penn State's athletic department, Beaver Stadium was 90.8 percent full last year on average. Of the top 25 football teams with the highest attendance last year, Penn State ranked 23rd in percentage of fullness. It was one of only seven of the top 25 highest-attended schools that had a percentage of fullness of under 95 percent (the average percentage of fullness for the top 25 attended programs was 97.8 percent), suggesting that its attendance problems are unusual for a powerful program.
When O'Brien began his two-week caravan around the East Coast this spring, he regularly stressed the importance of a full Beaver Stadium. In his speeches, he said that healthy attendance would lead to a healthy athletic department.
Joyner said the athletic department was coming up with ideas to improve fan experience. These measures include enhanced stadium WiFi, "new and improved" rentable seat cushions and a Beaver Stadium app that was introduced last season and allows fans to see videos and live stats. A new Jumbotron video screen also will be completed in 2014. (Associate athletic director of facilities and operations Mark Bodenschatz on Tuesday referred to this new Jumbotron as "quite awesome.")
As of this summer, the athletic department reported that 90 percent of season-ticket holders from last year had committed to season tickets this year. To attract crowds, Penn State also has introduced new ticket options, using tactics previously never utilized by the school.
This season, for instance, fans who wanted to buy single-game tickets to the Michigan game were mandated to buy the same number of tickets for Saturday against Eastern Michigan. The same went for the Nebraska game, which was paired with the Sept. 21 Kent State game.
About three weeks ago, Penn State released three new ticket packages. For a discount rate, recent graduates, as well as former and current Nittany Lion Club members, were offered tickets to multiple home games. The news release, posted on the athletic department's website, contained a quote from O'Brien that summed up the enormity and desperation of this gesture:
"There is nothing more important to the future of Penn State football and Penn State athletics than a full Beaver Stadium this season."
Top 5 in average home attendance in 2012, with largest crowd and opponent.
Michigan 112,252 113,833 vs. Michigan State
Ohio State 105,330 106,102 vs. Nebraska
Alabama 101,722 101,851 (six times)
Texas 100,884 101,851 vs. West Virginia
Penn State 96,730 107,818 vs. Ohio State
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.