MANHATTAN, Kan. — When Kansas State took the football field before a game against Baylor three weeks ago, Glenn Gronkowski expected to hear light applause from a partially filled Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
By KELLIS ROBINETT
The Kansas City Star
The Wildcats had lost three of their first five games, suffered back-to-back defeats and were labeled heavy underdogs against the Bears. So you can imagine his surprise when he was greeted to the roar of a jam-packed stadium.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Gronkowski, a redshirt freshman fullback. “I looked up in the top right corner and thought, ‘This is crazy. I can’t believe it is sold out.’
“It gave me the chills. … I hope it stays like that. It gets us going. That first drive when Baylor had the ball was the loudest I have ever heard it. We were 2-3 and they were still behind us. It really is crazy.”
K-State narrowly lost, but football players encountered the same scene as they marched onto the field last week against West Virginia. They will see it once again on Saturday against Iowa State. Fans can still purchase standing room-only tickets and watch the game from the hill on the northeast side of the stadium, but assigned seats are long gone.
The Wildcats, despite an up-and-down season, expect to exceed capacity for every home game this year and to set school records for total attendance (384,654 in 2002) and average attendance (51,136 in 1999). K-State crammed more than 52,000 into a 50,000-seat stadium in its first five home games and is averaging 53,017 fans. It has also sold out its last 10 home games.
They are impressive numbers, regardless of circumstance. But they seem remarkable considering the Wildcats have a losing record and football attendance is down nationally.
Studies show that attendance dropped 3 percent in the season’s first month compared to the same point last year, and 6 percent compared to this point two years ago. Average attendance in this season’s first month was 45,596, down from nearly 50,000 in 2011.
But K-State is averaging 2,739 more fans per game than it did last season, edging out undefeated Baylor (2,681) for the largest increase in the Big 12.
“Hopefully we have developed a culture where that is now the expectation,” said Scott Garrett, K-State’s assistant athletic director for ticketing and fan strategies, “and we can count on the stadium being sold out every week.”
A perfect storm of conditions made the big turnouts possible.
For starters, the Wildcats are coming off back-to-back seasons that ended in major bowl games. A 10-win season, followed by an 11-win campaign and a Big 12 championship, created new levels of excitement in the preseason. That led to a record 43,000 season-ticket orders.
This is also K-State’s first season playing in a renovated stadium. The Wildcats finished construction on the $90 million West Stadium Center, featuring suites and club-level seats.
Bramlage Coliseum is also open during games, offering bathrooms and a place to cool off or warm up. Even social media has become a Saturday staple. K-State shows tweets and pictures from fans on its video boards and highlights from other games after every quarter.
“I would put our gameday experience up against any other program in the country,” Garrett said. “In terms of value and total experience with everything that is going on around on Manhattan, you can’t beat what we provide.”
K-State players now want to be part of the equation. At 3-4, the Wildcats need a strong finish to reach bowl eligibility.
“Now we have to give the fans what they deserve,” Gronkowski said. “They have been supporting us, they have been loud. We have got to give them what they deserve and win.”
To reach Kellis Robinett, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/KellisRobinett.