The performance of the Arizona State football program is often thoroughly discussed, analyzed, and the topic of heated radio shows and podcasts (especially the one you’ll find on this website). But what about the performance of its fan base? Not as much is analyzed about the ASU fan performance. Fans that post on blogs, message boards, call into radio shows, and use social media feel that a winning team, games in the cooler months of the fall and good opponents will automatically fill the stadium. So much so that there’s a raging debate on whether the reduction of seating happening with the construction going on at Sun Devil Stadium, to accommodate a better fan experience, is unfair. The fan base seems to think the stadium is frequently at capacity, or near capacity. What do the numbers show about fan attendance over the last 14 years? Let’s take a look.
For starters, the numbers used in this analysis consisted of capturing the announced attendance for all Sun Devil home games since 2001, excluding all non-Power 5 Conference teams. This would exclude all the cupcake teams, along with all the Mountain West-type teams too.
In the 14 years since 2001, ASU has played 70 home games at Sun Devil Stadium (SDS) against peer-type teams with a total of 4,074,926 announced tickets being sold for an average of 58,213 per game. (As we all know, these numbers are not the actual numbers that attend the game.) Based on the three different capacities of SDS over the 14-year span, ASU averaged filling SDS stadium to 81.3 percent of capacity based on announced ticket sales.
Home Attendance over the Last 70 Games
The trend line over the 14-year period is going up, however, if the chart started with Dennis Erickson’s first year and not Dirk Koetter’s, then the trend line would have been going down. In the 14 years and 70 games there have been only nine sellouts, (three of them are Territorial Cup games with Arizona). The nine occasions when the stadium was standing room only averages a sellout once every one-and-a-half seasons, or once every 7.8 home games against Power 5 Conference foes.
In addition to Arizona fans helping to create a sold out stadium, three of the sellouts have benefited from a strong showing by the visiting team’s fans. The Hawkeye fans showed up for Iowa in 2004, the Bulldog fans came out for Georgia in 2008 and the Fighting Irish faithful helped fill the stadium for Notre Dame in 2014. The remaining three were games in which both ASU and the visiting teams were ranked; USC in 2005, Cal in 2007 and again USC in 2007. Based on this, it would seem that over the last 14 years, the ASU fan base needs a marquee game or help from the visiting team to sell out a home game. Another way of saying this is that in 14 years, there has not been a sell out at SDS when the game wasn’t a “big” game, even when ASU had a good team and winning team on the field.
There have been nine games in which ASU and the visiting team were both ranked in the Top 25, 15 times when only ASU was ranked and 13 times when only the visiting team was ranked, which leaves 33 times when neither team was ranked. That means that nearly half of all the home games at SDS were played when neither team was ranked. Spread over a 14-year span, that could develop some fan apathy.
Here is a breakdown of the average attendance during each of the past three ASU coaching tenures, along with each coach’s records against Pac-12 and Power-5 Conference foes over the past 14 years, (bowl games were not considered):
It is interesting that even though the average announced attendance for Todd Graham’s tenure is higher than either Koetter or Erickson’s, they both have two years each with a higher average yearly attendance than what Coach Graham has received so far. This is in light of the fact that Coach Graham has winning records against Power-5-level foes, for all three years whereas Koetter and Erickson had only one season each.
This may point to the fact that the fan base as a whole has not fully embraced Graham’s winning Devils, and may be taking a wait and see approach. Coach Graham’s overall attendance figures may not have been all that high if he had experienced a poor season in his tenure like Koetter and Erickson did.
Here’s a look at the makeup of the games played during each of the three coaches’ tenures:
One out of every four home games so far in the Graham tenure have been with both teams being ranked. One out of four home games in the Koetter tenure had just ASU ranked and one out of every four home games in the Erickson tenure had just the visiting teams ranked.
It interesting that the percentage of games played at SDS where neither team was ranked is very similar for all three coaching tenures. During Coach Erickson’s tenure, there were not a lot of marquee games at SDS where both teams were ranked, as only one out of every twelve home games saw both teams ranked. That’s an average span of roughly once every two plus seasons.
Calculating the number of ranked teams playing at the home games during each coach’s tenure, (which includes ASU being considered when ranked), Dirk Koetter saw 18 ranked teams playing at SDS in 28 games, or one every 1.55 games. Dennis Erickson saw 14 ranked teams in 26 games at SDS, or one every 1.86 games, while Todd Graham has also seen 14 ranked teams in only 16 games, or one every 1.14 games. Clearly, there have been more good match ups at SDS during the Todd Graham tenure to date.
Attendance by Type of Game
The home attendance was higher for a ranked visiting team and an unranked ASU team more than for a ranked ASU team and an unranked visiting team. Does that speak to the overall ASU fan base needing an incentive to go to the games and not just to support a good ASU team? If it does, then the concept that winning will draw fans may not be as cut and dry as believed.
The graph also points out that Todd Graham’s home attendance figures should be higher than they are. He has played four games in which both teams were ranked; yet those four games averaged only 59,878, while the five similar games played under Koetter and Erickson averaged 68,223 in attendance. That’s more than a 12 percent drop in games where both teams were ranked.
Another indicator that fans don’t yet fully support Graham in attending home games is the fact that his last home game against Washington State in 2014 had the second lowest announced attendance of all the home games where ASU was ranked and the opponent was not. Even though it followed a disappointing road loss, the team was still in the hunt for a South Division title, and ranked 13th in the nation.
Home Attendance by Month of Game
Not including the end of the season Territorial Cap games, as the season progresses, the average attendance figures steadily decrease. This may be due to the fact that nine out of the 14 years analyzed had non-winning percentages against peer competition. The decrease flies in the face of the belief that as the hot weather in Tempe dissipates, more fans attend the home games.
In the winning seasons of 2004 and 2007, the average figures did go up as the year progressed, however, in 2014, the average home attendance figures steadily decreased as the year went along, with the exception of the Notre Dame game even though the Sun Devils were winning games, had a winning season and was ranked for every home game. This again may point to the overall fan base not yet buying wholeheartedly into Graham’s teams.
Type of Opponent
The average attendance for a Pac-12 foe at SDS only generated ticket sales equal to 80 percent of the capacity of SDS as of 2014.
Eight of the eleven Pac-12 Conference foes averaged drawing less than 60,000 fans per game to SDS over the last 14 years. Four of the top six draws to SDS are from the same Southern Division as ASU.
The fact that ranked visiting teams draw larger attendance to SDS home games than just a ranked ASU team may mean that overall ASU fans need something more than just a good ASU team to draw them in big numbers to their home games. It also doesn’t show strong fan support when in 14 years and 70 games, there has not been one sellout that came about without the help of a marquee game or a very large number of visiting fans. A case in point is that ASU was ranked during every home game in 2014, yet needed the marquee event of the Notre Dame game for its only sellout of the year, and that’s in the third year of a winning program, with the team in the hunt for the South Division title.
It’s understandable that the ASU fan base has become a bit weary. Excluding all the cupcake and non-Power-5-level opponents, in the eleven years before Todd Graham arrived, ASU teams only won 44 percent of these games and recorded only two winning seasons. That will drag a fan base down. Additionally, in the last seven years, there have been only four sellouts at SDS; against Georgia, Notre Dame and two Territorial Cup games.
It also appears that as fan expectations don’t get met during the seasons, fan support begins to wane, as shown by the steady decline in attendance as the season progresses. This is in contrast to the idea that as the hot weather begins to subside in Arizona; more fans come to the home games. Could it be that the ASU fan base sets its early expectations a bit too high and are disappointed as the seasons play out?
“Win and they will come” doesn’t seem to have taken hold for ASU football yet. In the past two years, ASU has won almost three-quarters of their meaningful games and played in eleven home games in which one or more of the teams was ranked, yet has only seen a sellout for a Territorial Cup game and a very high profile Notre Dame game. For some reason, the fan base is waiting for something more, and the actual tipping point to determining that “more” is unclear.