Can Kent State fill these seats?

Josh Johnston

With the football season starting tomorrow, the Kent State athletic department is scrambling to increase attendance at home games. They want 90,000, and, so far, they’re right on track.

Joel Nielsen will be holding his breath tomorrow night.

But it won’t be over the highly anticipated return of senior running back Eugene Jarvis. Or because of how sophomore quarterback Spencer Keith will perform under center. Or even the final score of Kent State’s season-opener football game against Murray State.

No, what Kent State’s new athletic director will be wringing his hands over come tomorrow night will be the number of butts in seats.

It’s no secret the Kent State football team struggles to bring fans to home games each season. The team hasn’t reached the 15,000 fans per home game the NCAA requires since 2006.

And so when Nielsen stepped onto Kent State as its new director of athletics this summer, he created one massive goal: to draw 90,000 fans to Dix Stadium — capacity 25,000 — in six games this year.

“It’s changing a culture — the way the fans feel, the way the institution feels, the way the community feels,” Nielsen said.

The problem

Buried deep in the 434-page NCAA Division I manual is section, otherwise known as the FBS football-attendance requirements.

Or Nielsen’s biggest headache.

“Once every two years on a rolling basis, the institution shall average at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for all home football games.”

According to the box scores, the Flashes didn’t struggle much with drawing fans last year. Kent State’s six home games averaged 15,512 in attendance. But those numbers are typically rough guesses taken during the game and don’t count toward the attendance minimum, said Alan Ashby, an Athletic Department spokesman.

What counts is the NCAA-audited number. And according to that, Kent State fell short. Around 9,000 fans per a game short, to be more precise.

Kent State drew a total attendance of around 37,000 last year — 20,000 in paid tickets and 17,000 in student attendance.

The school has received warnings from the NCAA in the past because of its poor attendance, Ashby said. But the actual punishment for failing to draw the minimum number of fans is vague, mostly because the NCAA has never actually disciplined an offender of the attendance rule.

“But we don’t want to test their patience,” Ashby said.

The solution

To command the athletic department’s drive for 90,000, Nielsen enlisted the help of Tom Kleinlein, former Arizona State football director.

Kleinlein, now an executive associate athletic director at Kent State, formed a committee to hash out a plan.

“We were just throwing out ideas,” he said. “Let’s just throw everything we can up on a board and then start organizing and formulating a plan.”

Thus 90Ksu was born. A marketing campaign focused on bringing fans to Kent State football games.

Billboards were put up, a website was created, pre-recorded messages could be heard when put on hold by the university. President Lester Lefton even appeared in a commercial alongside former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman.

But despite the increased drive in marketing, Kleinlein said the athletic department hasn’t spent any more money than usual. As of last week, around $119,500 had been spent on marketing, Kleinlein said.

“We’re still operating under the same budgetary number we’ve always operated on,” he said.

But will it work?

Last year, advertising professor Danielle Coombs’ qualitative research methods class did a study on how Kent State students perceived the football team.

“Our findings were basically that students didn’t have any real urge — there wasn’t a real football culture here,” Coombs said. “There was no scene, no excitement, no energy.”

And, according to the study, even a winning team might not change students’ minds.

“That’s sort of the culture it has, that people assume we’re losing even when we’re winning,” Coombs said. “If people perceive that the team is terrible, even if they have a winning record, they’re not going to expect it, so they’re not going to notice it until you’re telling them and you’re showing them.”

Enter the second half of 90Ksu: fan experience. Or as puts it, “creating a game-day atmosphere that starts with a completely revamped tailgating experience (and) making a trip to Dix Stadium not only affordable, but memorable and fun.”

That means a new tailgating area at the Field House, $30 season tickets and corporate sponsors like Time Warner Cable and the Record-Courier presenting “Meet the Seniors” night. Kleinlein and the Athletic Department hopes all of that will amount to a better atmosphere.

“You have got to entertain people,” he said. “The bottom line is, in today’s economy, people want to say, ‘OK, I want to spend $10. I want to get the most I can for my money.’

“So that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to create a family experience that’s of value.”

With everything said and done, the billboards, T-shirts, tailgating areas and sponsorships might just be having an effect. As of last week, 46,000 tickets had been sold, Kleinlein announced proudly. And that’s before factoring in student attendance or visiting team ticket sales, which, according to the NCAA Division I manual, count toward that pesky 15,000-per-game minimum.

So tomorrow night when the Kent State football team charges into Dix Stadium for the first time this season, maybe Joel Nielsen can breath a sigh of relief.

Contact Josh Johnston at [email protected] for more information.