November 3, 2010

The New York Times: Surge in Attendance at Men's College Games

Nov. 3, 2010

On top of much improved television ratings in the United States for the World Cup in South Africa and a professional league invigorated this summer by international star power, add another symbol of soccer's continuing emergence in this country: surging attendance at college games.

Eye-catching figures are popping up across the country for men's games. Cal Poly has drawn crowds of more than 8,000 twice this season. Last month Duke visited Maryland and played in front of 7,260 spectators. And Ohio State set a university record when it drew 7,255 fans for its game against Akron in September.

The magazine Soccer America reported last week that 35 men's teams in Division I were drawing more than 1,000 fans a game this year, eight more teams than in 2009. Last season only two teams had average attendances above 2,500; eight teams are drawing at least that many this season. And this year each of the top 20 colleges in average attendance is attracting more fans per game than last season.

"On one hand, there is something big going on here, this slow growth of soccer in the United States," said John Francis, a professor in San Diego State's sports business master's degree program who has researched the growth of soccer in the United States. "At the same time, there are interesting things and smaller stories emerging within this larger trend."

Leading the swell is the University of California, Santa Barbara. Its athletic department has marketed the college's campus and hometown as a so-called soccer heaven. The team will most likely shatter its record for average attendance in a single regular season, which it set last year with 4,335 fans a game. This year it is averaging 6,619.

On Sept. 24, Santa Barbara drew a crowd of 15,896 to Harder Stadium, its home field, for a game against U.C.L.A. It was the largest regular-season college soccer crowd since 1980 and the largest soccer crowd over all for an on-campus stadium. Mark Massari, the Santa Barbara athletic director, called the atmosphere electric and compared it to an English Premier League game, with thousands of fans raising scarves high above their heads.

Massari said Santa Barbara and other colleges were beginning to reap the benefits this season of a number of factors, including aggressive marketing, outreach to local youth programs and the entrenchment of teams into their communities.

Attendance at Santa Barbara games in particular is helped because the conference the university plays in does not sponsor football in the fall.

"On top of that, you throw in a passionate student body, a community that loves soccer and a team that plays an exciting brand of soccer," Massari said. "It's sort of a perfect storm happening."

Some college officials said their numbers should be taken with a grain of salt because jumps in attendance this year could, in certain cases, be attributed to scheduling quirks and one-off situations.

Ohio State, for instance, is averaging 1,492 a game, which at first glance appears to be a huge improvement from its average attendance of 522 in 2009. But if the Buckeyes' record-setting home match against Akron -- which Akron fans attended by the busload -- is removed from the equation the average this year drops to 532.

The situation at South Carolina, another program with a drastic boost in average attendance, is somewhat different. It is averaging 2,051 fans this year after drawing just 726 a game last season, but as with Ohio State, one game has skewed the number. The team plays Clemson at home every other year, and this season's game drew 6,157 fans.

But disregarding the Clemson match, the Gamecocks are averaging 1,464 fans a game -- still twice as many as last season.

Eric Hyman, the South Carolina athletic director, said a possible reason for the rising numbers there and around the country was that a generation of young people who have had more exposure to the game -- playing it and watching it on television -- appears to be coming of age.

"They understand it better than the older generations, who can't relate to soccer the way they can," Hyman said of college students.

Another factor in the attendance boost, Francis said, could be the popularity of the World Cup, which drew large American television audiences this summer, and the appealing play there by the United States team. Francis was careful not to overstate its influence, but he said that excitement about the tournament could have primed casual fans to the pleasures of the game.

"You might not run looking for it, but you're more open to it," he said. "If something halfway decent comes along or an interesting story comes along, you're more likely to dive into it than before."