No more excuses: UL winning, but fans still not showing

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

When a UL graduate student posted an attendance-related Twitter comment this week, Ragin’ Cajuns athletic director Bryan Maggard responded with the following:

“Put a great product on the field and they will come.

“Lower ticket prices and they will come.

“Make concessions affordable and they will come.

“Now it’s open up the gravel parking lot and they will come.

What will be next? #NoMoreExcuses”

College football attendance in Acadiana: It is a sensitive subject in these parts.

“We’re certainly always going to continue to try to find ways to improve the in-game experience, to improve the product,” Maggard said Wednesday. “We’re never going to stop doing that. And we’re always going to listen to the fan base.

“But, at the same time, you can’t just give everything away — and, at some point, I’m hopeful that the Acadiana community as a whole will get behind these athletic programs and support them at a high level.”

Related:Seriously, how bad is Cajuns football attendance?

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In front of 14,262, UL and quarterback Levi Lewis beat Troy last Saturday at Cajun Field.

The UL football team is 9-2 heading into Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Cajun Field against 5-6 UL Monroe. It is receiving national attention, evidenced by 18 voting points in this week’s USA TODAY Top 25 coaches’ poll. The UL-ULM rivalry game will be televised by ESPNU.

Yet the Cajuns drew an announced crowd of 14,262 for its 53-3 win over Troy last Saturday at Cajun Field, a home game season-low and their lowest total since 12,993 was announced for the final game of the Mark Hudspeth coaching era in 2017.

“I can’t explain it,” Maggard said of the turnout. “Bottom line: I don’t know.”

The Cajuns are winning — five in a row, in fact. One more victory, and UL will have a program all-time record with 10.

Tickets these days can be had for as little as $10. Prices at the concession stands have been cut drastically. Marketing efforts are on the rise.

“I feel like we made a statement that people should come to our games,” said tight end Hunter Bergeron, a St. Thomas More High product who grew up watching both big and small crowds at Cajun Field.

“It’s not like last season, where some games were really great, some games were alL right. We’re putting the ball down and playing right now, and that’s enjoyable to watch.”

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Yet the Cajuns are still having trouble at the gate. And now some are asking for free parking closer to the stadium.

Maggard, in his third as UL’s athletic director after a long stay at Missouri, hopes things change.

“Whatever the various distractions were (last week) that caused people to not come to our football game — I know those things exist, but I would like to think this was just an aberration,” he said.

'14,000 ... IS EMBARRASSING'

 A strategic plan for its athletic department unveiled by UL last month did not address specific football attendance goals.

But it did include reference to a hope to “surpass $2.75 million in annual ticket revenue (for football, baseball, softball and basketball) by the end of the fiscal year 2022.”

That total currently is about $1.7 million, according to Maggard.

Maggard said he also wants to increase current football season ticket sales from around 7,500 now to 10,000.

Read all about it: Cajuns football attendance: Seriously, how bad is it?

As for single attendance at 41,426-capacity Cajun Field, Maggard — grateful for those who regularly support UL — said “the aspiration for me is a sellout.”

“But I think if we can do this incrementally, we need to live in that 25,000-plus range,” he said. “That’s our next milestone, if you will, and then you want to get into the 30,000s.

“I continue to believe. ‘Why can’t we attract 30,000-to-40,000 people to every home game?' This is Division I football. It’s a very, very good product. We’re getting national attention from a ranking standpoint. We’re winning at a high level. So I remain very hopeful that the community at large will respond.”

A few days before the Troy game, UL coach Billy Napier — who has worked previously as an assistant at stops including Clemson, Alabama, Colorado State and Arizona State — was asked what his realistic attendance expectations are for a successful Group of Five program like the Cajuns.

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“We’ve got close to a million people within 35 miles of here,” he said, “so I think it’s feasible for us to continue to grow in that area.”

Napier pointed to announced crowds of 21,000-plus for games against Appalachian State and Texas State earlier this season, and said, “I hope we can do it again.”

Ideally, more.

Yet fewer than 15,000 was announced for the win over Troy, causing quite a stir in the community.

“What is it going to take for Lafayette to show up for its team?” tweeted Jackson Ladner, a long snapper who played his final season for UL last year. “14,000 for an 8-2 (now 9-2) team is embarrassing.”

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On a message board, posters debated reasons attendance is down, as they often do throughout the seasons.

Reasons range from start times to the weather to playing when LSU is on TV, and more.

Other posters offered enticement suggestions that could help boost numbers.

On social media sites including Twitter, they did the same, which is what prompted Maggard to respond.

One creative suggestion was that students should get full class credit hours for attending games.   

“That’s certainly nothing I would go down the path of,” Maggard said.

“I admire the creativity and the thoughtfulness behind that. But at the end of the day you want your fans to come out of intrinsic desires, not extrinsic.”

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UL, Napier suggested, is doing what it should to attract fans.

“I think people want to be associated with a winner,” he said. “They want to have great pride about the local team and their institution.

“You know, we’ve seen our crowds continue to grow. Our students continue to show up in bigger groups, larger numbers. We’ve seen the local community come out.

“I think our administration has done a great job,” he added, “of creating scenarios where there are different opportunities, different themes for each week.”

Yet even amid the winning, and the affordable prices, the numbers still were down drastically last Saturday.

That’s not what Napier expected when he left his offensive coordinator’s post at Arizona State to take the UL job and replace Hudspeth after the 2017 season.

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But he’s also seen the good times, like 28,866 for his first game as the Cajuns’ coach, against Grambling; 21,012 against Appalachian State this season, despite it being a Wednesday night; and 21,063 for homecoming against Texas State earlier this month.

“I think that this place is very unique,” Napier said last week.

“One of the reasons I took this job is I felt like there was a group of people that had great pride about what this place could accomplish and where we could go — you know, what we were capable of. And we’ve seen that over time, this year in particular.

“As we’ve played winning football, and found a way to win some games and get in contention and be relevant in the national conversation,” he added, “we’ve seen more and more people show up. And we’re hoping we can continue to grow, you know?”

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