FSU made a conscious decision this season to start with a pair of I-AA opponents in Western Carolina and Chattanooga. The idea was that the team would not be ready to play a real opponent because of the early season suspensions related to last December’s academic scandal.
On the surface it makes sense. Coming off of back-to-back 7-6 records, the program could use some tune up wins to get a better record and get the fans energized. It worked on the field, with the Seminoles posting a 69-0 win over the hapless Catamounts of WCU. So how about those fans?
Energized isn’t quite the word for it. A crowd of only 73,204 showed up to watch the bloodbath, the lowest attendance for any game since the stadium expanded in 1993. In fact, every season since 2004 has seen a lower average attendance in Tallahassee than the previous one did.
Contrast that with the all-time record crowd of 90,833 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for last Saturday’s contest between Florida and Miami, and you can see the gap that has formed between the two in-state rivals. The Swamp does have a larger capacity than Doak Campbell Stadium has, but the attendance for FSU’s game against WCU represented just 88.73% of its capacity.
One advantage that Florida has over FSU is location. Gainesville is about an hour drive from Jacksonville, less than two hours from Orlando, and about two hours from Tampa. Tallahassee is out in the panhandle, and the more than two-and-a-half hour drive from Jacksonville is the shortest trip from any of the state’s major population centers. In an era of high gas prices, that can make a difference.
Regardless, FSU still pulled out all the stops to get as many people to come as possible.
The school offered $19 single-game tickets to Saturday’s matchup, an unthinkably low amount for most big programs around the country. The Tallahassee Visitor’s Bureau helped identify hotels that did not require a two night minimum. The school has even offered special ticket packages for Tallahassee Community College students (undergrad population: about 14,000), which is odd since FSU has more than 32,500 undergrads and over 41,000 students overall.
Miami has always been the joke of the state when it comes to attendance at games. For example, the Hurricanes only managed an average of 65.21% capacity filled in 2001, a season in which they won the national championship. While that is an inexcusable amount for a metropolitan area with over five million residents, Miami is still a small private school in a city that really only cares about the Dolphins when it comes to sports.
FSU is now backsliding in that general direction. One would figure the attendance will rise for conference play, but before that the team has another dog of a game against Chattanooga this weekend. The first real test, both on the field and in the stands, will be when Wake Forest comes to town on the 20th. The Demon Deacons are the ACC’s only ranked team, and they have defeated the Seminoles two years in a row.
The cure, of course, is putting a winner on the field again. There are signs that Jimbo Fisher is taking more and more control of the program, most notably in the fact that a senior quarterback with lots of starting experience got demoted to third string behind two much greener players.
The greater transitioning to Fisher is the first step, and the two easy wins that FSU is using to pad its record will likely help some too. It will all be for naught if the NCAA drops the hammer on the university in its final judgment on the still-unresolved academic scandal case, but any future penalties are purely speculation at this point and may not even happen.
However, it is a reflection of the sad state of affairs in Tallahassee when on opening weekend the combination of discounts, help in circumventing ridiculous hotel restrictions, and special packages for the local community college resulted in the lowest attendance in over 15 years. Fisher has a lot of work to do, and FSU had better hope he’s up to it.
Note: This was written before the revelation of FSU’s response to the NCAA investigation into the academic scandal. Any big news in that has not been considered.