Big Lead Sports Bar


Reader Submission: The Attendance Debate: Pitt and Penn State

Reader Submission:


By Cecil from Cecil Twp.

Recently, there has been much debate within the walls of Mondesi’s House on the subject of attendance at NCAA football games; particularly those played by our beloved Pitt and Penn State. With the Nittany Lions hosting crowds in excess of 100,000 at Beaver Stadium and the Panthers playing to “announced” crowds of 43,689 at Heinz Field, it doesn’t take a genius,
like the Post-Gazette’s Shelly Anderson, to recognize there is significant disparity between the state’s two prominent college football programs.

However, with a little research and analysis, it is possible to discover how this divide came to exist. Sure, it is easy to label Pitt fans as passive or unsupportive, but if you examine this issue from a variety of angles, the findings will surprise you. And I can promise you that it’s not as simple as wins and losses.


It’s all about appeal, baby. A team’s name must make a passionate connection with the masses on a fundamental level. Why did the Boston Patriots become the New England Patriots in 1971? Why did the Anaheim Angels annex the name “Los Angeles” in 2004? Its basic common sense; they were pandering to the populace.

In both cases, team ownership realized that their franchises could appeal to a larger number of potential paying customers by simply tweaking the team’s name and creating a tangible link to the larger and more populous regional area, rather than limiting their reach by using the name of a relatively smaller city or municipality.

Think about it. A resident of Manchester, New Hampshire does not associate himself with the city of Boston, and he may not be as likely to root for the city’s pro teams for that very reason. However, when you attach the label of “New England” to the team, suddenly it appeals to him because, at his very core, he is a proud New Englander, and it is his duty to root for his home team, the Patriots.

Los Angeles is even more interesting. The Angels first changed the team name to “Anaheim” in order to throw a bone to the locals in Orange County and to distinguish their brand from that of the LA Dodgers. However, ten years and a
bad Disney movie later, new team owner Arte Moreno realized that there are potential fans to be had across the entire greater LA area, not just Orange County. He asked, why couldn’t someone in Mailbu or Pasadena be just as prone to root for the Angels as they are the Dodgers? Hence, the name was formally changed to “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” in an attempt to reach the entire metro area of 17+ million people, rather than focusing solely on Orange County.

The same principle applies to Pitt and Penn State. The name “Pitt” primarily appeals to Pittsburghers, those who live in and around the Pittsburgh area, a region that constitutes roughly 20% (2.4 million) of the state’s total population of 12.3 million.

The name “Penn State” reaches every last corner of Pennsylvania and can hold just as much appeal to someone in Scranton as it does to someone in Pittsburgh, because at the end of the day, both people are Pennsylvanians, thus providing a link to Penn State, and resulting in more fans.

Other similar situations exist across the country. If you live in Alabama, chances are that you attach yourself to the Alabama Crimson Tide rather than rooting for the Auburn Tigers. Same thing in Florida, where Florida and Florida State are sold out years in advance, but you can easily buy a ticket to watch the tradition-rich Miami Hurricanes.


That’s right, Bud Selig. Believe it or not, with respect to NCAA football, the smaller the market, the better the fan support. And I have the proof to back it up.

According to the NCAA’s official attendance figures from the 2005 football season, the top 30 teams in average weekly home attendance each draw more than 60,000 fans per home game. Amazingly, the top four teams average in excess of 100,000 per home game, with Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, and Penn State leading the way.

If you examine the top 30 teams, you will find that only 4 teams play their home games within a 60 mile drive of an NFL stadium: Michigan (1st), Washington (23rd), Arizona State (28th), and California (30th).

Seattle (Univ. of Washington), Tempe/Phoenix (ASU), and the SF Bay Area (Cal) are each more than 50% larger than the 18th ranked Pittsburgh market, thereby creating more fans and discretionary dollars to be thrown in the direction of the local college team. Also, each of these teams also carries the name of the school’s home state, thereby appealing to the entire state, rather than just one metro area.

Michigan serves as the exception to the rule, primarily because, well, the Lions have been awful for going on 50 years now. The Lions’ half-century of misfortune has turned metro Detroit, the nation’s #9 market with a population of 5.5 million, into a college town for football purposes, where Michigan (110,000 avg.) and Michigan State (75,000 avg.) garner more attention than the resident NFL franchise.

Going a step further, if you search the attendance statistics for another NCAA team that plays in the same city as an NFL franchise, while also carrying the name of it’s home city, the first such school on the 2005 list is Miami, ranking 49th with an average home attendance of 45,310. Miami is followed closely by Pitt (56th) and Boston College (61st); two more schools whose names appeal to a specific metro area, proving that college football is best played away from the bright lights of the big city.


And sometimes, there just isn’t enough to go around. Let me ask you this, Pitt fans, irrespective of the outcome, which game would you rather have attended, assuming that, like most people, you did not have the means to attend both:

2005 Fiesta Bowl – Pitt vs. Utah
Super Bowl XL – Steelers vs. Seahawks

You need not waste my time with a response. The answer is obvious. As a Pitt grad and native Pittsburgher, I love my Pitt Panthers, but nothing comes between me and the Steelers.

The Steelers have that type of special relationship with the Pittsburgh area, the same way the Eagles are the main attraction in Philly, but what sports team makes the most passionate connection with the 4-5 million Pennsylvanians not located in or near the state’s two largest cities?
You guessed it, Penn State does. In places like Altoona, or Chambersburg, or Bradford, or Erie, where there is no local pro team to demand the attention and discretionary income of the local sporting public, all roads lead to Penn State. And it makes perfect sense. In fact, much as it pains me to admit this, had I grown up in Altoona, I can promise you that I’d have been raised as a Penn State fan!

To further complicate matters, competition for the entertainment dollar is fierce in Pittsburgh. As the only major metropolitan area in the nation to consistently lose population over the last 15 years, significant strain has been placed upon the local teams as they compete for corporate and fan support in a decaying market.

Other cities, like Miami and Boston, are not faced with the same economic woes as Pittsburgh, but their major collegiate programs, Miami and Boston College, respectively, face similar challenges due to crowded local sports scenes and the wide variety of entertainment options available to people in large cities. For this reason, schools such as Miami, Boston College, and Pitt cannot compete with their professional counterparts found within their own city’s limits, a problem unknown to programs like Penn State, Tennessee, and Ohio State.


Absolutely nothing can be done to combat this situation. Pitt is not going to change its name to “The Pittsburgh Panthers of Pennsylvania” to attract more fans. Building modern facilities, like Heinz Field, or moving to a new conference, as Miami and Boston College have done, can provide a small attendance bump in the short run, but over the long haul, NCAA football teams located in NFL markets will continue to hold secondary status to their NFL brethren, and this will in the end be reflected at the gate.

Pitt fans can rest in the knowledge that their school has a major collegiate football program playing in a beautiful professional football stadium. Can the team still be successful on the field? Of course. Can they sell out Heinz Field on a regular basis? Maybe. If Wanny’s bevy of big name recruits finally starts to win, it is possible to see 68,000 Pitt fans at Heinz Field each week, but it will still take a number of years to build that kind of sustained excitement among the ticket-buying public. (I realize the home schedule also needs some serious work, but that’s a debate for another time.)

Penn State, much like Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, Georgia, and some others, has all the perfect ingredients to create the ideal college football atmosphere, which they have done as well as anyone in the nation. They field a quality team, play in a traditional college setting against big name opponents, and draw a significant number of fans from all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Therefore, it is pointless to compare Pitt and Penn State in terms of attendance and overall support. There are factors that lie well beyond the control of the university and its fans that ultimately drive fan loyalty and determine matters like attendance at a school’s home stadium or bowl game.
Of course, I open it up to the floor for comments…


Anonymous said...

Another reason is that Penn State is a larger school, student body wise, which also means they have more alumni.

But college teams that play in the middle of nowhere (ie, traditional "college towns") will always fare better attendance wise than teams that play in the cities.

Miami has had the utmost of success for years, and they STILL have trouble getting fans into their stadium during mediocre years. Did anyone watch that T-day game between them and BC? The Orange Bowl was about half empty.

Pitt will have the same problem. I'm sure if (hopefully WHEN) they start winning more they'll draw more than 45,000 fans per game. But being as though they play in a pro-sports city, the market for college football will always be more fickle, and they'll be prone to attendance problems like Miami's during the lean years.

Pitt basketball will probably always fare a little bit better because, other than the fact that they're usually pretty good, if Pittsburghers want to see big-time basketball of any sort, the Panthers are the only game in town.

Anonymous said...

You cite Ohio State as a school in a traditional college setting, but I think Columbus has more than twice the population of Pittsburgh. Furthermore, you do not account for the fact that alumni of Penn State travel long ways to get to Penn State games. Most of the fans at Beaver Stadium are from Pittsburgh, Philly and Harrisburg, with many driving much farther. Do Pitt alumni only settle down in Pittsburgh after they graduate to root for the Steelers? Many of my friends from Pitt now live outside of Pittsburgh. The fact is that Pitt plays in an off-campus stadium and has underperformed over the years. I think we should all stop making excuses and start going to the games and helping the program develop so that someday the stadium will be filled even when Pitt plays the Citadel.

Anonymous said...


Your point on the alumni is right on. Look at the university system where PSU nearly 30 regional campuses to Pitt's 5, I believe.

Also, on Miami's attendance, they have problems drawing fans in good years. That 2001 team that steamrolled Nebraska in the title game averaged a mere 47,132 fans per game, good enough for 39th that year.


Look at the population statistics cited in the piece. You're taking the population of Columbus as a CITY and not as a COMBINED STATISTICAL AREA, which accounts for people living ina metro area, not just within the city limits.

Additionally, Columbus proves my point to a tee b/c the closest NFL stadium (Cincy) is more than 100 miles away.

Lastly, w/o access to the PSU season ticket holder list, there is no accurate way to know exactly where their fans live. This is just a theory...with considerable evidence.

Anonymous said...

Nice write up Cecil.

It is only a matter of time before Adam gets out of middle school for the day to tell us "Penn State has so many fans because they are the best football team in the galaxy."

Anonymous said...

Good submission... definitely provides solid evidence that we shouldn't compare the two schools...

(Now if only we could get people to stop saying they should play each other...)

Anonymous said...

Wow! I had no idea that this arguement took up so much of everyone's day.

Anonymous said...

Columbus is a decent sized city (but as cecil said, small overall metro area), but it really doesn't have much in the way of pro-sports outside of the Blue Jackets.

I've actually spent time in Columbus, and I can attest to the fact that the Buckeyes are pretty much the only game in town.

I agree that Pitt fans should support the team better than they do, but it's not like other city colleges don't have the same attendance problems.

Also, I live in Florida and I think it's funny that Miami has attendance problems because it seems that every time I turn around, there's another stupid "U" logo hat.

(In a totally unrelated story, I spent a night drunkenly wandering the streets of Columbus getting loaded with the Buckeyes hockey team... whom I didn't even know, and then I tried to steal some Catholic school's near German Village's basketball trophy.)

Anonymous said...

Student population numbers definitely have an impact on attendance. Pitt has maybe a 2:5 student ratio compared to Penn State. Even if every single student were to go and bring a friend at Pitt, they'd still have 1/3 of the stadium to fill. Penn State, however, would have almost all of Beaver Stadium packed. Obviously this isn't the case, but even if the same percentage attends at each school, PSU gets a lot more butts in the seats.

Also, don't forget that Pittsburgh area college sports fans also get spread to WVU. A large number of the SW corner of the state considers WVU a "home team". Penn state has the advantage of being fairly centrally located within the state, making it far more accessible to everybody, whereas Pitt is the whole way across the state from Philly, Scranton, etc.

And for the record, Pitt has branch campuses in Bradford, Greensburg, Titusville, and Johnstown. The 4 branch campuses combine to have maybe 12,000 additional students.

Bic said...

I'm a Pitt fan, enough that I've started a blog for the basketball team (and I love the football team just as much and have season tickets) but...

The home schedule is very bad every other year. This year we had WVU and Louisville at home as well as Rutgers (people didn't know they would be so good this year when they bought tickets so that doesn't count). This means next year we play all of them on the road and get teams like Syracuse and Cinci at home. I assume this is the Big East's scheduling fault but it's still tough when the home games stink every other year. Their best hope is that South Florida gets good because they're in the bad year of the rotation.

The way to combat this is to schedule good non-con teams. You don't need to bring in Florida or a Top 10 team but there are a ton of teams that would top the Citadel.

Anonymous said...

This is going to sound like partisan Pitt-baiting, but I can't think of a better way to put it, and I think it's the elephant in the room that sort of needs to be acknowledged.
Pitt's attendance is paltry compared to Penn State's because far fewer people care about Pitt's football program.
I'm all for some scholarly thought about why that is, but don't make it out like there is a huge, untapped legion of Pitt fans who, for whatever reason, just don't go to games.