Joe Santoro: Newest Nevada ghost town features a football team
It might be time to add Mackay Stadium to the list of Nevada ghost towns.
Don’t be surprised if the next time you pass by the Nevada Wolf Pack’s erector set stadium if you see a huge vacancy sign on the gates or a needy and desperate billboard out on north Virginia Street that reads, “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.” The Wolf Pack is wondering where you are, northern Nevada. An announced crowd of just 14,604 saw the Wolf Pack squish San Jose State 59-14 last Saturday, the smallest gathering of the season. More people used to knock on Thoreau’s cabin door in a given week at Walden Pond asking for a cup of sugar.
The Pack will get its biennial attendance bump from the UNLV game on Nov. 25 but the message northern Nevada is sending this season is clear. It is treating The House that Chris Ault built this season as if it is a Christmas tree lot on Dec. 26. If the Wolf Pack isn’t careful, community interest in its football program is in jeopardy of going the way of penny slots and the $7.99 dinner buffet in downtown Reno. The Pack has now had eight consecutive football crowds of less than 20,000. It is the longest such attendance dry spell since the 2005-06 teams did the same for nine games in a row.
This is the same football program, don’t forget, that recently attracted more than 20,000 fans to 20 consecutive home games from 2012 to 2015. Yeah, well, those were the days. When you are 2-8 coming off a 5-7 season, you can only sniff crowds of 20,000 or more when a Fremont Cannon is the prize. You could have loaded the Fremont Cannon last Saturday with real cannon balls and fired them into the stands without a reasonable fear of hitting someone.
Whose fault is it? Who is to blame for these uninspiring and vanishing crowd figures? Well, there are as many reasons for the small crowds as there are empty seats at Mackay.
The biggest reason, of course, is the 2-8 record. Northern Nevada struggles at times to love a Wolf Pack winner. The 2010 football team that went 13-1 saw four of its seven games attract less than 20,000. Two were under 12,000. If a Pack team loses on a consistent basis like this year’s team, well, Pack fans disappear like an airplane on David Copperfield’s stage.
The home schedule (Wyoming, San Diego State, Utah State, Toledo, Idaho State, Hawaii, Air Force and San Jose State) the past eight games also hasn’t helped. Wolf Pack fans will show up to watch UNLV and Boise State, no matter how awful the Pack might be at the time. But it’s been two years since either team came to town. The last time UNLV attracted under 20,000 to Mackay was 1989 (16,545) and the last time a Boise game was under 20,000 was the 1990 Division I-AA playoffs (19,776). The stadium capacity in 1989 and 1990 was about 15,000. Saturday’s crowd could have fit comfortably into a 1990 Mackay Stadium.
Nobody is blaming northern Nevada for the dwindling attendance. The team has been losing, the opponents have been uninspiring, tickets aren’t cheap, parking is a hassle, there are always a dozen or so better games to watch on TV and, well, this isn’t Boise. There are other things to do – go grocery shopping, mow the lawn one last time, get your car’s oil changed – on a beautiful fall weekend in northern Nevada than watch a meaningless college football game.
But this year’s disturbing attendance numbers should not be ignored. Forget victories, the Wolf Pack football program more importantly is leaving a ton of money on the table. The Wolf Pack is 11th in the Mountain West in football home attendance this year at just 16,594 a game, ahead of only (you guessed it) San Jose State (14,516). Even UNLV, which hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since Ronald Reagan was president (1983-84), is averaging 17,449 a game.
Nevada, UNLV and San Jose State are the only teams in the Mountain West that have not had a home crowd of at least 20,000 this year. The Wolf Pack (four), UNLV (3) and San Jose State (3) have combined for the 10 lowest attended games in the Mountain West this year. The Pack crowd against San Jose is the fourth smallest in the Mountain West this season thus far, trailing only San Jose State’s home crowds against Cal Poly (10,667), Utah State (12,426) and South Florida (13,377).
San Jose State, it seems, is at the root of much of the Mountain West’s attendance problems. The Spartans have been a part of the five smallest football crowds in the Mountain West this season. Those five games are their home games against Cal Poly, Utah State and South Florida as well as their road games at Nevada and UNLV (15,009). San Jose State fans don;t go to San Jose or anywhere else to watch their Spartans.
So, there you have it, Wolf Pack fans. If you were looking for something positive out of this 2-8 season, it’s that the Pack’s problems on the field and in the stands pale in comparison to the problems San Jose State is facing. Don’t be surprised if the always eager to please Wolf Pack marketing department leaves a placard on your seat at Mackay on Nov. 25 that reads, ‘Hey, at least we’re not San Jose State.”
The Wolf Pack’s football goal, though, is not to become the next San Jose State. Football programs cannot live on wins over the Spartans alone. The Pack’s goal is to become the next Boise State or San Diego State. But how can anyone expect a team that averages under 17,000 fans a game to compete on a consistent basis with programs that average more than 30,000 (Boise State, Colorado State, Air Force and Fresno State) or 40,000 (San Diego State)?
The Wolf Pack’s average home attendance has decreased each year since 2013. Northern Nevada, for some reason, got all excited about Brian Polian’s first year as head coach in 2013 with an average crowd of 24,939. Reality returned shortly thereafter as the crowds dipped to 23,862 in 2014 followed by 22,170 in 2015 and 18,501 last year. And Polian is no longer with us.
The hiring of Jay Norvell this year, for some reason, didn’t bring the same sort of enthusiasm and optimism that the hiring of Polian did going into 2013. That’s not Norvell’s fault. To Pack fans, Norvell is still just a guy with a visor, hoodie and headset on the sideline. And, oh yeah, he loses games. Just like Polian. The Polian era is probably why Pack fans have taken a wait-and-see approach to the Norvell era.
Pack fans are just waiting for the victories. Winning has always been the key to filling Mackay Stadium.
The hope in the Wolf Pack ticket offices is that the sparse gathering last Saturday is the end of the Mundane Mackay days. The Wolf Pack, after all, could go down to San Diego State this Saturday and beat an underachieving Aztecs team. Combine victories over San Jose State and San Diego State with an appearance of UNLV at Mackay Stadium and we might be looking at the start of a vibrant, alive, maniacal Mackay Stadium once again. You might not be able to simply roll the Fremont Cannon into Mackay on Nov. 25 without hurting someone.
UNLV, after all, attracted a crowd of 29,55 the last time it came to town in 2015. In 2013 the Rebels saw 32,521 staring at them from the Mackay stands.
UNLV, it must be noted, won both those games in 2013 and 2015. Attendance might fill your athletic budget but it doesn’t necessarily win football games. Optimism and enthusiasm, as Polian found out, only lasts until the first loss to UNLV at home. Norvell better know that he dare not lose to UNLV on Nov. 25.
If that happens, well, next year Mackay Stadium just might resemble the Black Rock Desert a week or so after Burning Man.