Joe Santoro: There’s a problem with Nevada Wolf Pack football | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: There’s a problem with Nevada Wolf Pack football

Joe Santoro
Special to the Appeal

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack football program has a serious problem. And when the football program has a serious problem the entire athletic department has a serious problem. The Northern Nevada community is, to put it gently, not in love with the Wolf Pack football team. Pack football has become about as exciting as taking your sister on a date to the movies. This season's average attendance (16,722) at the Pack's six home games is the lowest for the program since 2011 (15,576). And that 2011 team didn't play a home game until the team was 1-3 and Pack fans were suffering from Colin Kaepernick withdrawal that year. This year is the program's third lowest average attendance over the past 27 years, since the team's last season in Division I-AA (1991). The 1991 team, which played in the Division I-AA Big Sky Conference, averaged 20,050. The Pack didn't have a crowd as large as 20,000 all season long this year.

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The most disturbing sign that Northern Nevada has a lukewarm (at best) affection for the Pack football program took place last Saturday. UNLV was in town. The Fremont Cannon was on the line. It was the final game of the season. And the stands were almost half empty. The band was almost all alone in one end zone. Just 17,359 showed up for the UNLV game. It is the Pack's lowest attendance for a Rebel game at Mackay Stadium since 1989, when 16,545 squeezed into a 15,000-seat stadium. The stadium now is almost twice as big and the crowd was almost the same. The last time UNLV came to Reno, in 2015, the stadium could barely hold the 29,551 fans that showed up. It's not because the Pack had a 2-9 record going into Saturday's game. The 2001 Wolf Pack, which had lost 15 of its previous 18 games dating back to 1999, drew 24,238 to see the Rebels. The Wolf Pack has now gone nine consecutive home games without a crowd as large as 20,000. Not even UNLV and the Fremont Cannon could break that streak. Attendance at Mackay has decreased every year since 2013.

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It's not just Northern Nevada that stayed away from Wolf Pack football games this year. The Pack played six road games this year and five of them were either the lowest or second lowest attendance of the season in that stadium. The only one that wasn't was Colorado State, which attracted 36,765 to see the Pack because it was the first night game in the Rams' new stadium as well as the team's first home game in over a month. And because the state of Colorado is football crazy. The Pack's flat road attendances tells us two main things. Pack fans don't travel well (why pay big dollars to watch a team go 0-6 on the road?) and the rest of the college football world, even in the Mountain West, doesn't know the Wolf Pack from Wolf Blitzer.

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The Wolf Pack spent roughly $12 million to renovate Mackay Stadium a couple of years ago. It added an amazing video scoreboard. It installed a sports bar under the press box. It basically did all the things that the community supposedly told the university it wanted. The Pack then changed its head coach, something the community also wanted. But there remains a serious disconnect between the community and the Wolf Pack football program. There are roughly just 15,000 or so fans that invest any real emotions (and money and time) into the Pack football program. They will show up no matter what. It's the other 10-15,000 fans that stayed away this season that the Pack needs to connect with. Pack football, to Northern Nevada, is simply the Air Races, Balloon Races, Rib Festival and Hot August Nights with shoulder pads. It's just something to do, something fun to tell your co-workers on Monday morning when they ask you about your weekend. It needs to be fun. But when the team isn't winning every week it's not a whole lot of fun.

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The flat attendance figure at Mackay is not the fault of the community. And it's not really the fault of the athletic department. You can, after all, only install so many video boards, fire only so many coaches and change the uniforms and helmets only so many times. The challenge for the Wolf Pack is always the same thing. The students do not come to the games in large numbers. It's a commuter school. There are plenty of other things for an 18-22-year-old to do in Northern Nevada to have fun on a weekend. The community, for the most part, attended another college or didn't go to college. But attendance at college football is declining or staying the same all over the country. Tickets cost too much. Parking is a hassle. The games last far too long with way too much downtime. There are always better games on television. The game in your community is probably on television. Why invest time, money and emotions to watch an overpaid coach lose games? If you pay a coach like he is in professional sports, he better win like he is in professional sports. It used to be that the only place you could watch college football was at the stadium. You can now watch games on your phone while you are waiting to check out at Walmart. The unfortunate truth about mid-major college football has finally dawned on the communities that pay the bills. It's a glorified exhibition sport. What does the Pack really play for? Mountain West championships? Made-for-TV insignificant bowl games? Those are nice for the players and coaches that get rings, free dinners and gifts but why should the community care? It doesn't.

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Wolf Pack football crowds averaged roughly 22,000 over the school's first eight seasons (1992-99) in Division I-A. It was new and exciting and the reality of mid-major college football actually being a glorified exhibition sport hadn't hit the community yet. But that all disappeared after the 1999 season. Average attendance topped 20,000 just once over the next 12 seasons through 2011. There was a brief upswing from 2012-15, thanks to the move to the Mountain West, when the Pack averaged more than 23,000 a year but that has obviously faded. Attendance will always be a rollercoaster on North Virginia Street. Is the team winning enough? Does the community like the head coach? What will the weather be like? Is the game on TV? Will it end around midnight? Did the Pack raise ticket prices? How exciting is the opponent? All of these factors are in constant motion surrounding the football program's attendance. You can't change that with new video boards and sports bars in the stadium. All you can do is win. A lot.

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Wolf Pack men's basketball doesn't have such attendance problems right now. The Pack has averaged 8,178 fans a game for its first four home games this year and that number will rise dramatically as the victories pile up and the games become more meaningful and are played on Saturdays more often. Pack men's hoops finished last season with crowds of 10,000 or more in four of its last five games at home. The Pack hasn't had a crowd less than 7,737 over its last 13 home games dating back to last year. This is the same program that averaged under 7,000 a game for seven consecutive seasons until last year when it averaged 8,923. What is the difference between football and basketball, as far as attendance is concerned? The team wins. A lot. The games are played in a warm, comfortable arena. The games last only a little over two hours. The head coach is worth the price of admission all by himself. The team is actually playing for something meaningful (a spot in the NCAA tournament). Did we mention that the team wins a lot?