Football attendance — a few thoughts on a long-term problem

North Texas mascot Scrappy leads the Green Brigade during the "North Texas" cheer during the Mean Green's homecoming game win over UTEP last season at Apogee Stadium. UNT officials talked during the school's annual coaches caravan about the importance of improving attendance.

The UNT coaches caravans came to a close last night at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

I went to the first stop at Apogee Stadium and heard from a few people who went to the other stops. We covered the baseball aspect of what was said a few days ago. The other big topic of discussion was — as always — attendance.

Or more accurately, the lack there of, mostly for UNT’s football games.

It’s an age old problem for the Mean Green.

I get the sense that there is a feeling out there that UNT has done its part — and to a large degree it has.

There is no way one can discount the work the UNT athletic department, a few key students and a host of dedicated boosters did to get Apogee Stadium built.

One also has to give credit to Dan McCarney, his staff and his players. McCarney is a tireless worker who led UNT to arguably its most successful and important season since at least 2002, maybe longer, depending on your point of view, when UNT went 9-4 and beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last season. He is also terrific in terms of promoting the program.

UNT’s move to Conference USA from the Sun Belt helped.

UNT averaged 21,030 fans per home game last season, but hasn’t sold out Apogee once.

That fact is a sore point with McCarney and UNT officials.

I get that.

UNT is moving in the right direction, but the problem is one that is going to take time to fix.

The bottom line is UNT faces a tough road in Texas when it comes to building its fan base. The University of Texas looms large. So does Texas A&M and Texas Tech, not to mention TCU and SMU in the Dallas area.

There is a lot of competition and precious few people who were raised as UNT fans.

A perfect case study are the players UNT has recruited through the years. I have talked to about 90 percent of them when they committed as to why they picked UNT. I have talked to one in a decade who said he grew up a UNT fan. Daniel Mayberry of Dallas Spruce lived in Denton at a children’s home in the seventh and eighth grades. UNT has another lifelong fan on its roster now in Blake Dunham, for obvious reasons. One of our high school writers wrote that story.

That point is this — UNT just doesn’t have a lot of born-and-breed fans to build from. Every once in a while, I hear from fans who are upset that a UNT graduate they know, sometimes their own kids, have switched to backing another in-state program.

UNT isn’t going to switch lifelong Texas or A&M fans and has to hang on to the students it has for life. And even that isn’t easy.

The school’s got one shot, and that’s the four or five years kids are on campus. UNT is doing a great job of capturing those students now, thanks to the efforts of McCarney and the UNT athletic department.

What I have always sensed is an issue are the generations of students who were lost over the years. Those people turn into empty seats.

I have heard the question posed over and over, “If you’re a UNT graduate living in Dallas, why not come back to games?”

It’s a great question.

There are more and more people doing just that. The problem is the school didn’t capture a lot of people while they were on campus because UNT was playing in the I-AA ranks or because the team was in the midst of going 13-58 beginning in 2005 or because they suffered through the times when things got really bad beginning in 2007.

A lot of those people are gone. And they are not coming back.

That’s just the reality in a state where kids grew up following other programs and weren’t drawn in when they were on campus. There are thousands who never switched allegiances and will be throwing up the Hook-em Horns in August.

The tide is turning.

Apogee helps. Having a great PR guy/coach like McCarney helps. Winning really helps.

The fans from the bowl years of the early 2000s are still around. The students who experienced the Heart of Dallas Bowl aren’t going anywhere. And there are the hardcore few who were drawn in even during the tough times.

UNT just needs more people like them.

That will take time.

There is no magic bullet. Apogee wasn’t. Conference USA wasn’t. One bowl win won’t be either.

UNT needs consistent winning that will build a fan base one generation of UNT students at a time.

Do that and UNT will sell out a game at Apogee.

It will just take some time.

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