Football and basketball attendance at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University the "Big-2" sports at the state's two largest institutions is not only critical for peer prestige but fundamental for financial survival.
"Do we get concerned? Yes," said Utah assistant athletics director Marc Amicone of local and national trends of declining attendance. "Do we panic? Hopefully not."
The panic stage would be knee-jerk, short-term fixes, such as selling lifetime tickets, "that can come back to haunt you," Amicone said.
Sponsorship by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't translate into deep pockets for BYU sports. Monies instead come from the LDS Foundation, Cougar Club, endowed scholarships and season tickets.
"No tithing dollars go toward funding our program, so the reality is that we have to earn our own keep," said BYU associate A.D. Duff Tittle. "Over half our operating budget comes from season ticket sales in football and basketball. . . . The health and success of our program depends on full stadiums."
According to Amicone, 80 percent of U. revenue comes from 25 percent of the seats the high-end sections filled with steadfast fans. "That's why priority seating is so critical," he said "It helps us survive."
For a Utah-BYU football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the U. can expect a capacity-crowd gate of $800,000, Amicone said. A lesser foe and a smaller crowd drops it to $350,000 "a lot of money," he said, bemoaning the difference.
The two schools go in inverted directions. Utah's stable sport for attendance is basketball, while Ute football falls short of capacity. BYU nearly doubles the U. in football attendance, while Cougar basketball crowds are substantially smaller than Utah's.
But five-year attendance figures can be misleading.
BYU's 2001 football average of 58,949 includes two games played before the start of fall semester, with the BCA Classic against Tulane scheduled well after season tickets had been distributed drawing "only" 40,000. Toss out that game, and the 2001 average jumps to more than 62,000.
Increases in BYU ticket sales come after a big season, such as the Cougars' 14-1 Cotton Bowl season in 1996, Tittle says. He expects the same this year after BYU's 12-0 start and the unveiling of a high-octane offense last year.
Meanwhile, Utah is "trying to look at last year and not panic," said Amicone, "because last year we really came off in both sports.
On the surface, Utah attendance has risen in the past five years, but the rise hasn't matched the 50-percent seating increase of the remodeled and expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium.
U. basketball continues to be a top draw but has gradually tapered off since the Utes' NCAA title run a half-decade ago. But empty seats are cropping up more and more noticeably at the Huntsman Center.Comment on this story
But it's a far cry from the visible vacancy at BYU's Marriott Center, with the Cougars still feeling the effects of the 1-25 season now six years in the rear-view mirror.
That year, BYU was announcing ticket-distribution attendances of 12,000 a game, when actual numbers were a small fraction of that. Officials started reporting actual attendance "drop counts" the following season, with last year's "drop" average at 8,360.
That's in a 22,700-seat building, where 11,000 seats alone are below concourse.