For the first time in four seasons this past Saturday, the Virginia Cavaliers were coming off a winning season, having finished 8-5 last year with a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, GA, the ACC's highest non-BCS bowl tie-in. The Hoos had a strong offseason that was capped off with Alabama transfer Phillip Sims being granted a waiver by the NCAA to play immediately rather than sit out a year. Virginia recruiting appears to be as hot as it's ever been in the Tidewater region and elsewhere.
So where were all the fans on Saturday?
In Virginia's 43-19 rout of Richmond to open the season, the recorded attendance was 50,081. That's the lowest attendance for a UVa home opener in well over a decade, since at least 2001, the earliest for which such data was available from VirginiaSports.com.
To be completely fair, despite rain throughout the morning and humidity that rivaled the worst of this summer's record-breaking temperatures, Scott Stadium felt closer to 60,000 full than it did 50,000. But for a program that, by all observations and accounts appears to be rapidly on the rise, a season opener with the lowest attendance in recent history is not what Coach London and company bargained for.
Here's what previous years' attendance have looked like for the home opener:
|2011||William & Mary||51,956|
|2009||William & Mary (L)||54,587|
|2008||Southern California (L)||64,947|
|2002||Colorado State (L)||57,120|
* Home opener, but not the season opener
With the exception of the 2008 season opener against USC, which stands as the program's all-time highest home crowd, Virginia's home opener attendance has steadily declined every year since 2004, which in part is correlated with the program's decline over the latter half of former head coach Al Groh's tenure at Virginia.
Why do you suppose that is? I have no answers.
You can't say it's because it was against "just Richmond," as both the 2010 and 2001 Richmond appearances on average of 10% more than this year's contest.
Nor can you blame it on on-field performance. When the legendary George Welsh left the program in 2000, the Cavaliers finished with a 6-6 record, 5-3 in the conference. After Coach Groh took over that team, his second year at the helm resulted in a 9-5 record, 6-2 in the conference. Groh was rewarded by the fans in his third season with a 61,737 attendance, which holds the No. 9 spot in the all-time home attendance records. Coach London took over a 3-9 team (2-6 ACC) and much more drastically turned the program around with a 8-5 (5-3 ACC) record in his season. So why then, did the crowds not show up in London's third season as they did when Groh took over?
To be honest, I have no answer to this. Maybe it's that Virginia fans are just beaten after so many years of sub-mediocrity, and it's not something that one successful season can change. Maybe it's that there's a more highly-anticipated game next week against Penn State, so those who are planning on travelling just once early in the season aren't going to pick Richmond to go to. Maybe it was leaked that there would be a stadium loudspeaker announcement that UVA, a school already ridiculed for being a Zima, wine and cheese crowd, is now serving parfaits during football games, and it was shame that kept the fans away. (But seriously, whose idea was this, and why did this need to be advertised?)
I find none of these convincing (maybe the last one). Does anyone else have any suggestions? I'm hoping attendance skyrockets next week as the Hoos look to extend the nation's longest winless streak for Penn State. (Too soon?)