Fan attendance in the OUA continues to decline
Picture this: It’s the heart of fall. The sun is shining as the wind blows carelessly across the open gridiron. Football players are out for their game day warmups. The announcer prepares to announce athletes as they run out to the field. But behind them, the fans are merely scattered across the bleachers, with a ton of empty space around them.
Similarly, Waterloo Memorial Recreational Complex stands in solidarity on Father David Bauer, where the Wilfrid Laurier women’s hockey team prepares for their evening tilt against a rival opponent. People scuttle in to find their seats, but are overwhelmed with choices on where to sit. There is no assigned seating for the game — not that someone would cause a fuss, but the are so few people that there wouldn’t be conflict.
Where are all the Laurier fans?
Jon Kursikowski, the coordinator of sponsorship and events in the department of athletics and recreation said many factors affect fan attendance like proximity and weather, but also noted it’s important the Laurier numbers presented on the Ontario University Athletics website are “scanned” tickets, not necessarily sold tickets. A facility can be sold to capacity, but fans aren’t obligated to show up to the event.
As one of the most marketable sports, football suffers in that aspect. Although the interest is higher and draws a larger crowd, the bleachers at University Stadium remain almost vacant during a regular season game. Kursikowski said weather could be a factor to fan attendance, but the complications exceed Laurier and spread into Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
The most amount of fans the Guelph Gryphons brought into Alumni Stadium was during their Homecoming game when 8,000 fans attended — with their second-highest attendance crossing the 3,000 mark, according to the Ontario University Athletics website. The last two games of the season were unrecorded. Similarly, on a good day, the McMaster Marauders brought in 5,427 fans to Ron Joyce Stadium for their Homecoming, but reached half of that number for the rest of the season.
The Western Mustangs stand as the only anomaly, where a bad day in fan attendance climbs to new heights in competitors. Their opening game brought a crowd of 11,832 and their Homecoming game brought in a total crowd of 10,291. Even their other two home games doubled Laurier’s attendance, with 4,802 and 3,806 fans showing up respectively.
In a facility capable of seating 9,000, Laurier filled University Stadium with 6,717 fans during Homecoming, but barely cracked the four-digit mark when their fan base — the student body — went home for fall reading week when Laurier hosted the Ottawa Gee-Gees and the McMaster Marauders on Oct. 9 and Oct. 17 respectively. The Orientation Week game isn’t much better – in total, 3,368 tickets were scanned and granted entrance into the stadium.
But university sport is dying in exposure. The Yates Cup — the pinnacle of Ontario university football — had a viewership of 5,817 fans watching the spectacle from the stands at TD Stadium in London. Of course, this doesn’t include the viewership from TV networks like CHCH.
“It’s really a shame because when you look at the States and the States are like comparing apples to oranges,” men’s football head coach Michael Faulds said. “In the States you don’t know what day is Homecoming because every day is a sellout. They wouldn’t be able to look at the stands and be like “Oh that must be Homecoming.” Now it’s just a regular game.”
“Whereas here, Homecoming and have anywhere from 7,000-10,000 fans, and the very next week we’ll play a game and we can have anywhere from 1,000-3,000 fans.”
Hockey and basketball face the same problem.
In an arena where 200 fans can make the difference between whether or not the coach notices the crowd cheering behind them, Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex flirts with attendance numbers as low as 78 and as high as 134 in the 2015-16 women’s hockey season . Brantford Homecoming brought in 726 fans to the Brantford Civic Centre on Sept. 24.
Head coach Rick Osborne recalled the days when an exhibition game against the McGill Martlets brought in a fifth of capacity. Fans were plentiful when Laurier was the top team in the country in the world of women’s hockey, but as university sport struggles to maintain a fan base that recycles itself every four years, it’s difficult to keep consumers interested in the product.
“When the gym is half full or more, you can get a pretty good atmosphere in there. But I think we’ve had that for certain games over the years,” Falco said.
Collectively it is agreed the real product to be sold is the experience — not so much the sporting event, but the social aspect of going to it. The ability to create a lasting impression and keep the students coming back. Faulds thinks this can be accomplished, especially from a football standpoint where it’s only a four-game commitment.
“It’s not about the actual football game, it’s more about the event,” Faulds said. “It’s all about the school spirit.”