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Fans will follow a successful program

Is it just me, or did Wallace Wade Stadium seem a little empty Saturday afternoon?

Whether it was the busy Homecoming schedule, threat of rain, or sign of protest against new Football Gameday policy, attendance dipped to pre-Cutcliffe levels Saturday as only 20,138 people witnessed Duke’s victory over Tulane.

Despite the best efforts of top administrators to inspire a culture change around the football program, the stadium figures were a disheartening reminder of the Ted Roof era. In the former coach’s final year, the program attracted an average of only 20,064 per game for the entire 2007 season. One year later, the Blue Devils benefited from Cutcliffe-Mania and a renewed sense of faith in Duke Football, increasing attendance by 43 percent to 28,727 fans. The average attendance figure has stayed relatively constant since, dipping slightly in 2009 before settling at 28,750 last season with an assist from a visit by then-No. 1 Alabama.

The Blue Devils entertained 32,741 guests at this season’s opener against Richmond, effectively filling 96 percent of Wallace Wade Stadium. One week later against Stanford, however, not even Andrew Luck could buoy ticket sales as only 24,785 fans—many in Cardinal red—watched Duke compete with the then-No. 6 team in the country.

Then came Homecoming. An event steeped in tradition and pride in the University brought with it the old tradition of indifference toward Blue Devil football, and attendance at Wallace Wade continued its first major slide in the Cutcliffe Era.

So the question remains, how can the program boost the attendance numbers again? Just win, baby, win—all the way to a bowl.

Of the 30 teams that saw an average attendance increase of 2,000 people or more from 2009 to 2010, 17 of those teams went to a bowl game after the 2009 season. Of those 17, five had not gone to a bowl the previous year and saw an average attendance increase of 3,922 fans per game.

Could it really be possible to have near-capacity crowds for every game in Wallace Wade Stadium? Could Cutcliffe, with his football wisdom, pull ticket sales up by 10,000 fans in just five years?

Absolutely. Heck, Florida International did it in one! And that was even before they went to a bowl game.

The Blue Devils will pay a visit this weekend to a real Cinderella story that has had stunning success with attendance in recent years. The Golden Panthers got their start as a program in 2002, then joined what was then Division I-A and the Sun Belt Conference in 2005. Current head coach Mario Cristobal came to the program in 2007, following a series of NCAA sanctions that forced Florida International to vacate a total of 10 wins from the 2003, ’04, and ’05 seasons.

Playing in the shadow of the powerhouse Miami Hurricanes, the Golden Panthers ranked 119 out of 120 Division I-Bowl Subdivision teams in attendance for the 2009 season, when an average of just 10,204 fans came to watch the team go 3-9.

Despite an 0-4 start in 2010, though, Cristobal led Florida International on a magical run to a 6-6 overall record and a conference championship, which earned the Golden Panthers a trip to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, where they beat Toledo. The bandwagon took off along the way, and FIU Stadium averaged 19,808 fans per game—exceeding the stadium’s capacity of 18,000. The increase of 9,604 fans per game was good for seventh in the country.

Granted, Florida International plays in a small conference that has allowed it to find quick success. But after nearly doubling attendance in one year with no marquee opponents on the schedule, the Golden Panthers are a prime example of the best way to put people in seats on Saturday afternoons—winning.

With the Blue Devils recovering to a 2-2 record, Duke is already ahead of Florida International’s 2010 precedent. If the Blue Devils can maintain pace and reach that magical sixth win, dreams of a capacity crowd in Wallace Wade Stadium for Homecoming 2012 may not be as farfetched as they seem.


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