UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The attendance promise dates to James Franklin’s first day on the job.
It was made at his introductory news conference, when a student journalist who had Vanderbilt ties asked him about the challenge of rallying fans to come to football games in Nashville. The exchange went like so:
Reporter: At Penn State, you don’t have to do that. You’ll have at least 90,000 in that stadium.
Franklin: What’s the stadium hold?
Franklin: Is there a reason you said 90,000?
Reporter: That’s when it’s at its worst.
Franklin: 107,000 from here on out. That stadium will be sold out every single game from here on out.
It’s September now, time to see whether Franklin’s promise pans out as Penn State opens its home schedule against Akron Saturday and whether it can reverse the recent downward trends for home openers and season attendance.
In 2013, Penn State’s attendance at Beaver Stadium declined for the sixth consecutive year. Compared to 2007, when Penn State averaged more than 108,000 fans, its 2013 average attendance was down 12.8 percent. Though Penn State remains among the top five in overall attendance, it has been losing fans at a greater rate than most other colleges: The average attendance decline of 2013 in college football since 2007 was 2.8 percent.
Penn State’s decline from 2012 to 2013 was more subtle, dropping from 96,730 fans per game to 96,587 fans per game, suggesting Beaver Stadium attendance might have leveled off after tumultuous years brought on by the Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan.
On top of the general attendance challenges, season openers are tough sells. Penn State’s home opener opponents since 2009 have been pedestrian opponents like Akron (104,968), Youngstown State (101,213), Indiana State (96,461), Ohio (97,186) and Eastern Michigan (92,863) that have attracted tepid interest. Of those past five home openers, only the Ohio game attracted more fans than the average number of fans per game for that season.
Franklin has campaigned continuously for a sellout since his original promise in January. A little more than a week after that promise, he started using the Twitter hashtag “#107kStrong” and has used it in tweets with subject matters ranging from fan appreciation to cryptic recruiting triumphs to pictures of his daughters to a quote from Dr. Seuss.
“I think I’m a football coach that understands there’s a business aspect to this as well,” Franklin said earlier this year. “That’s why you hear me talking so much about selling the stadium out. And everybody thinks that is for football. That’s not for football. That’s for everybody because, like it or not, football has the ability to bring income in that is going to support all the sports.”
Despite Franklin’s efforts, signs aren’t pointing to a sellout Saturday. Penn State introduced a new deal for students this week, offering a package of two tickets for $80. And, according to the same news release from the university, single-game tickets, season ticket packages and partial season ticket packages still are available.
“You know me, I’m the ultimate optimist,” Franklin said Wednesday. “So we’re going to keep talking about having 107,000 fans there.”
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.