The seats were maybe 65 percent full at kickoff. No more than that. A few more thousand fans would trickle in a few minutes later, after presumably polishing off that last beer in the parking lot.
On Saturday night, the announced attendance for Kansas’ season-opening victory over Southeast Missouri State was 36,574 — which, if you believe KU’s official numbers, was the lowest attendance for a KU season opener in 11 years.
It was always going to be this way, attendance being a major story line during Charlie Weis’ third season. Two years ago, when Weis arrived, the KU athletics department saw an immediate spike in season ticket sales. KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger was happy, of course. But he was also slightly worried. Rebuilding projects take time. And he didn’t want his marketing and ticket departments promising too much in year one.
Now it’s year three. Season ticket sales are lagging again. And if there was any question that KU’s football attendance was going to be a troublesome issue, KU senior linebacker Ben Heeneey offered the following words while explaining his team’s second-half lapse.
“We came out in the second half with no juice,” Heeney told a group of reporters after the game. “Half the stadium’s empty like it always is. Fans leaving at halftime. There’s no juice in the stadium, and I think that’s part of it.”
It’s hard to blame Heeney for the moment of postgame honesty and frustration. He is a two-time captain, an All-Big 12 candidate, a lifelong Kansan. It’s hard to blame KU fans for saying no to football. (Or, rather, wanting to spent most of the day at the Wheel or on the Hill). After Saturday’s victory, the Jayhawks are just 10-39 overall since 2010. If you take away games against FCS schools, KU is 6-38.
So on Saturday night, Jayhawk fans adhered to tradition. Even after an impressive first quarter and a 24-0 halftime lead, a mass of blue shirts and college students headed for the parking lot. Hey, there are beverages out there.
Still, the overall attendance (36,574) could be alarming for KU officials. It has been more than a decade since Kansas failed to attract a crowd of more than 40,000 for a season opener. In 2003, a crowd of 27,775 showed up to watch KU lose 28-20 to Northwestern on the last Saturday in August. The Jayhawks were coming off a 2-10 season. The game was played in a driving rainstorm.
For Kansas, this has been a long-term headache. Attendance has been trending downward for four seasons — and Saturday’s number does not inspire much hope. Especially after the Jayhawks struggled to put away an FCS opponent for the third straight year under Weis.
Here are Kansas’ average attendance figures since 2006:
On opening night, KU failed to match last season’s average. On a long list of football-related issues, this is among the most ominous for KU officials. In the age of Twitter and smartphones and HD televisions at tailgates and no beer in the stadium, it’s becoming harder for all schools to attract students and keep fans in the seats. At Kansas, the problem is magnified by the product on the field.
Memorial Stadium was just more than 70 percent full on Saturday night.
Ben Heeney certainly noticed.
Kansas travels to Duke this Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. matchup in Durham, N.C. On Saturday, the Blue Devils shook off a slow start and defeated Troy 34-17 in Troy, Ala. The Jayhawks haven’t won a road game since defeating UTEP 34-7 on Sept. 12, 2009.
Another team to watch: Central Michigan improved to 2-0 by dropping Purdue 38-17 in West Lafayette, Ind. Purdue is a dumpster fire right now, but Central Michigan was also playing without leading receiver Titus Davis. It didn’t matter. And look out: The veteran Chippewas come to Lawrence on Sept. 20.
Freshman cornerback Matthew Boateng became the first KU true freshman to record an interception since Bradley McDougald against Texas Tech in 2009. … Senior punter Trevor Pardula averaged 45.2 yards on four punts, including a 51-yarder. … Montell Cozart was the first Kansas quarterback to throw for three touchdowns since Jordan Webb against Texas Tech in 2011.