By Ashley Wislock
The Daily Item
UNIVERSITY PARK — For die-hard Penn State football fans, attending the Nittany Lions’ home games remains a top priority — but it appears crowds at Beaver Stadium are shrinking after what many are calling a “perfect storm” of factors.
In fact, the past four home games — against Indiana and Wisconsin in 2012 and against Eastern Michigan and Central Florida this season — have seen the smallest crowds since the expansion of Beaver Stadium in 2001.
“There are definitely sections or vacant seats that you can see from the press box,” said Rick Coup, who works at Coup Agency Real Estate in Milton and as the message board operator at Penn State’s home games. “It’s been like that for the last couple years ... but before that, you never saw vacant sections.”
Attendance at Beaver Stadium continues to decline, down to an average of 96,730 in 2012 — good enough for fifth-best in the country, but paltry compared with the average of 108,254 in 2008. Last season was the first in which crowds averaged fewer than 100,000 since 2001, according to Penn State Athletic Department statistics.
And that fifth-place ranking is also the lowest for the school since 2001.
The first two home games this year had attendances of 92,863 and 92,855, respectively. And with Kent State visiting this weekend, crowds may not get larger anytime soon.
However, those that do show up are still “giving it their all,” Coup said. “The ones that are coming are certainly true Penn State die-hards.”
The reasons for the recent decline in ticket sales may be the result of what Coup calls a “perfect storm” of factors: The implementation of STEP — the Seat Equity and Transfer Program — the economic downturn and backlash from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“Between those three things, that’s pretty much” the reason, Coup said.
Tim Krushinski, a Shamokin native and season ticket-holder who lives in Media, Delaware County, said he hasn’t heard many rumblings about the Sandusky case, and says he thinks lower attendance is related to prices.
“Other colleges are seeing the same thing because it’s so expensive,” he said. “You’re just starting to see a decline across a lot of schools.”
Representatives of the Penn State Athletic Department could not be reached for comment Thursday.
STEP in 2011
In 2011, rumblings first surfaced of declining attendance at Beaver Stadium — the second-largest on-campus stadium in the nation — when the first crowd short of 100,000 since 2001 walked through the gates.
Even then-coach Joe Paterno noticed, commenting on the smaller crowds during a Big Ten coaches teleconference, according to NittanyExtra.com. He blamed the 2011-implemented STEP guidelines.
“The economy is not great,” Paterno said. “It might not have been the best time to raise the prices on some of our seats, but we did. It probably had a bearing on it.”
STEP was put in place in order to “generate additional revenue in order to maintain its status as a self-supporting budgetary unit of the university. Left alone, Athletic Department expenses are projected to exceed revenues within the time frame of the current 10-year financial plan,” according to the Penn State Athletic Department website, which has a section dedicated to STEP.
The program, which aimed to “more fairly allocate season tickets in a way that properly reflects and rewards the generosity of our donors,” upped the required donation for many season ticket-holders — not including the price of the tickets or parking passes.
“I am a grad student in Philly and it just costs too much,” Robert Dougherty told StateCollege.com after dropping his tickets. “There were enough empty seats last year that I could always go up for a game or two a year. I probably saved $2,500 by not paying the STEP license and purchasing season tickets.”
Costs are a battle for schools around the nation, which are facing high-definition television broadcasts for interest, TIME Magazine reported.
“Rising prices and the ease of purchasing tickets at the last minute on the secondary market — many times for below face value — are often named as explanations for declining interest in season tickets,” the magazine reported. “But probably what hurts ticket sales the most is how the in-stadium experience compares to in-living-room viewing.”
Part of the reason could also be a weak schedule, which hasn’t had many strong nonconference opponents in the past several years and does not feature many coming up.
In the past, Penn State has played nonconference games against other perennial football powerhouses such as Alabama, Notre Dame and Nebraska — prior to the school’s inclusion in the Big Ten conference — and Oregon State.
In the past two years, Penn State has played nonconference games against lower-profile teams such as Eastern Michigan, Central Florida and Temple. Massachusetts comes to Beaver Stadium next year.
The next high-profile nonconference team on the schedule is Pitt in 2017, although there is still an opening on the 2015 schedule.
Krushinski, the Shamokin native, admitted that the schedule probably has been a factor in the attendance at the first two games, but said he expects things to pick up once Big Ten opponents visit University Park.
“When you hit the Ohio State and Michigan (games), it’ll be packed,” he said. “That’s what happened last year.”
Things may turn around as the Nittany Lions prepare for their long-term schedule, looking past the heavy NCAA sanctions limiting scholarships and restricting Penn State from bowl games for four years. On Thursday, Penn State announced that it and West Virginia agreed to a two-game series, scheduled for 2023 and 2024.
For the city of State College, home football games are a huge money-maker, bringing visitors into hotels and shops, said Andrea Harman, communications coordinator for the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County.
“They put people in the local hotels, local restaurants. It’s an enormous flow of people,” she said. “And they take advantage of all the retail shops that we have.”
The Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County formally studied the economic impact of the games, but Harman said the matchups have a definite positive impact and that attendance has been noticeably declining.
“It’s not as bad as everyone’s been saying, but there has been a change,” she said.
Part of that impact may be softened because many fans remain loyal to Penn State football and plan to attend games, even if the price tag goes up and the schedule isn’t at its peak.
“It’s kind of magical,” Krushinski said. “The student section was packed ... and everybody that was around our tailgate were same people that have been there for years.”
“The football hasn’t changed, the spirit hasn’t changed as far as rooting them on,” he said. “(The sanctions were) no fault of any of those players. We need to support them.”