Mark Wharton, assistant athletic director for the Nittany Lion Club, said he foresees a “great problem” of mass traffic heading in and out of State College for the Homecoming game this weekend.
But, unfortunately for the Penn State football program, it’s a problem Beaver Stadium has not attracted as much of during the past few seasons.
The Nittany Lions will play before their first sellout crowd of the season when they host a 5-0 Michigan squad Saturday at 5 p.m., after coming at least 14,000 seats short of doing so the first three home games this season.
Beaver Stadium’s announced crowd was more than 90,000 for each nonconference game, but the overall downward trend over the past few seasons has been noticeable. After averaging 106,440 fans per home game from 2001-2010, Penn State has averaged 97,952 per game since the beginning of the 2011-12 season.
In 2011, the Penn State athletic department instituted its Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) to increase funding, and this vastly altered the landscape of football season ticket acquisitions.
In order to be a Nittany Lion Club member — and thus season tickets — prior to 2011 meant paying for the price of tickets, in addition to a reasonable yearly fee. But STEP added a mandatory donation as part of payment for each season ticket plan, which ranged anywhere from $100 for upper deck seats to $2,000 for the best seats in the house.
The reception from most long-time season ticket holders has been one of frustration and questioning, as some were no longer able to afford the new donation requirement in addition to their 55-dollar-per-game tickets.
Don Davis, a 35-year season ticket holder residing in Norristown, said the altered arrangements left some Penn State faithful on the outside looking in.
“Economics definitely plays into it, because how many families of four do you have?” Davis said. “And when Penn State switched to the STEP program, [some families] basically said to us that that will be the end of it, because they can’t afford to continue coming to the stadium at those prices.”
Davis said compared to just a few years ago when finding a ticket on gameday was next to impossible, he now struggles to even get rid of extra tickets.
For a program that filled more than 100,000 seats every home game as recently as 2009, Davis said the change in gameday atmosphere has been palpable.
“There’s a difference in the excitement, difference in the anticipation of the game, difference in how you look at how important the game is,” Davis said. “There’s no question there’s a big difference.”
And even for those able to financially handle one of the STEP program’s five-tiered donation levels, complaints remained.
The adjustment rearranged the traditional Beaver Stadium seating chart, which many Penn State families had grown to love since they became attached to those sitting by them several times a year.
STEP made it so that those willing and able to add $2,000 to their annual budget received the best seats, while others trickled in behind them based on their donation choice.
Wharton said his staff has received many complaints about families being unable to remain close to those they’ve become close friends with after spending generations watching Penn State football together.
However, the Nittany Lion Club officer said the university was actually one of the last major college football programs to utilize this tiered form of season ticket arrangements, adding that about 90 percent of programs have seen recent attendance decreases.
“I don’t really like calling it a necessary evil, but if you look at athletic budgets at a lot of the schools in the Big Ten…” Wharton said. “We have to keep up with those facilities, those athletic budgets to attract top coaches and do the things we need to do. And it boils down to the cost of doing business.”
That raised cost of business is the primary reason for empty seats becoming more normal at Beaver Stadium than ever, says Penn State football historian Lou Prato.
While some have claimed the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case may have deterred some from continuing to pledge their support for the university, Prato said he believes this has hardly ever been the case.
However, Prato, author of “We Are Penn State: The Remarkable Journey of the 2012 Nittany Lions,” said the continued attendance decrease in the Lions’ surprising 8-4 2012 season — when fan total surpassed the 100,000 mark just once — did not bode well moving forward.
“If you don’t show up for that team last year, what’s going to happen if they go into a losing season?” Prato questioned. “There’s a lot at stake here. It’s great to be a fan if you can afford to be a fan…but there are also these extenuating circumstances that enter into your decision to attend a game on gameday.”
Meanwhile, Wharton said the athletic department understands the challenges it faces in returning attendance to where it once was. But, he noted that the program is already heading in the right direction, as the 2013 season is on pace to average more fans per game than 2012.
And whether or not the Lions continue to put out a winning product on the field, Wharton said Penn State’s goal is to constantly improve college football Saturdays in State College, starting with an enlarged HD video board by the 2014 season.
“We are trying very hard internally, which you’ll see with the video boards, to show people that with that increased investment,” Wharton said, “the gameday experience is going to get better.”
John Stuetz can be reached at email@example.com or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnStuetz_PSU.