UCLA’s attendance woes hit new low under Chip Kelly

The late morning sun was just beginning its slow, steady climb over the old stadium.

A crowd that might not have filled the Pauley Pavilion, let alone the Rose Bowl, dispersed in search of shelter from the relentless light.

Some fans found shade near the top of the bowl thanks to the trees that lined the outer edge of the stadium. Others gathered in seats beneath the Terry Donahue Pavilion, their own shady oasis.

Luckily there wasn’t much competition for the voting spots.

Attendance, the scarlet “A” of UCLA’s football program under coach Chip Kelly, continued a historic dip during the Bruins’ season opener Saturday.

The announced viewership of 27,143 represented an all-time low for the team since moving to the Rose Bowl ahead of the 1982 season. Explanations for the low voter turnout could have been in the numerical majority of the fans.

It was too hot. Kick-off was before noon. Bowling Green wasn’t the most exciting opponent. The students weren’t in class, so they didn’t come.

Given the conditions, Diehards weren’t too keen on showing themselves either.

“Nobody’s going to sit out a 104-degree day to watch an average Bruin game against a team they’ve never heard of unless the Bruins are in the top 10 in the country,” Todd Nathanson said , who has held the season tickets since 1998, the last time UCLA played in the Rose Bowl game.

Nathanson, who didn’t attend the game because he was out of town, has seen many sparse crowds early in the season. He suggested attendances were unlikely to swell unless UCLA went 5-0 before taking on Utah in early October.

“As much as we complain about the place and the stadium and this and that,” Nathanson said, “when the team wins, the fans show up. LA is a volatile city, we all know that.”

In fact, the attendance reflects some consistency since Kelly’s arrival ahead of the 2018 season. In both good and bad seasons, Bruins fans tend to stay home.

UCLA’s average home attendance last season, when the team briefly caught the nation’s attention with a riveting win over Louisiana State and finished 8-4, was just 45,818, the second-lowest number in 40 seasons at the Rose Bowl.

And the lowest? That came in 2019 when the Bruins averaged 43,848 while going 4-8. It may seem hard to believe, but it wasn’t long ago that UCLA, under Coach Jim Mora, set a record enrollment average of 76,650 in 2014.

UCLA plays Oregon during a game at the Rose Bowl.

UCLA plays Oregon during a game at the Rose Bowl on October 11, 2014.

(Doug Benc / Associated Press)

UCLA would not disclose the number of season tickets sold for 2022 or the renewal rate beginning in 2021, a school president said, citing proprietary reasons. The school had not released this information for previous seasons until 2019.

Stadium upgrades, which include modern scoreboards, better student seating, a pregame DJ and expedited entry, haven’t had a major impact on fans.

Attendance numbers will no doubt suffer this season with Michigan pulling out of a game scheduled for this weekend and the Bruins’ Sept. 30 game against Washington falling on a Friday night due to Pac-12 conference scheduling requirements.

Those longing for a stadium to be built on campus or a move to Sofi Stadium should probably abandon those hopes — UCLA’s Rose Bowl lease expires June 30, 2044, and doesn’t include an opt-out clause.

Saturday’s sparse crowd sparked some teasing in the national media and on message boards, with one fan joking on Bruin Report Online that the game could have been played on campus at the 11,700-seat Drake Stadium.

“It’s obviously a little disappointing because we’re trying to give as many people the best possible showcase,” Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said of attending. “But we try not to think too much about it. At the end of the day it doesn’t really affect how we play. We have to go out and still win the game. We know they’re out there watching us and still supporting us, so sure at the end of the day it’s all love.”

To be fair, UCLA’s decline mirrors a statewide decline in college football attendance. The average attendance among 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision was 39,848 in 2021, the smallest since 1981.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala celebrate in the end zone.

A light crowd watches as UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (right) and wide receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala celebrate after Thompson-Robinson ran the ball in for a touchdown in the second half against Bowling Green Saturday at the Rose Bowl let.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

But Bruins fans will have to cast an envious glance across town to see a fuller house. Faced with similar heat and a similarly unnamed opponent — albeit with a full contingent of students in the stands — USC drew 60,113 at the Coliseum for their opener against Rice in Trojans coach Lincoln Riley.

Afterwards, Riley sounded like he was just starting to sell the place.

“We’re going to keep working,” Riley said, “until people can’t even stomach the thought of not coming to a USC football game.”

Meanwhile, Kelly thanked fans who braved the triple-digit heat at the Rose Bowl and said he wasn’t concerned about a drop in attendance given the course of a program that is enjoying its longest winning streak since arriving.

“Our job is to play football,” Kelly said, “so we’ve won our last four. … I think everything is going in the right direction.”

Is that enough? Sam Andress, a longtime UCLA fan who attended his first game at the Rose Bowl as a three-year-old in 1984, cited Kelly’s lack of commitment to donors as one of the factors that led him to give up his season tickets after Kelly’s first season.

Last month, Andress said he attended a preseason banquet on campus that lacked energy. No battle song was played, no quaver clapping broke out. The trainers talked together for about 10 minutes.

“Chip doesn’t seem to care about fans, donors and alumni,” Andress said, before referring to a notoriously gruff coach who has won six national championships in Alabama. “So to me it’s like if you’re not winning at the Nick Saban level, then you’re not going to be interested in fans and donors paying for your program.”

When asked if he could do more to promote his program, such as attending booster events or being active on social media, Kelly said, “We don’t have any booster events that have been recommended. We always have problems early in the year no matter where you are because we don’t have the students on campus so we don’t start classes until the end of the month so that’s always been a problem.”

Andress was among those attending the opener, securing two spots in a suite for less than $100 each so he could take Zeke, his 2-year-old son, into air-conditioned comfort for his first UCLA game.

Capacity at the Rose Bowl has been reduced to 53,390 for this season after adding a second tarp for seating to match that in the opposite end zone. The Head Boy said the tarpaulins could be removed if necessary depending on ticket demand and other factors.

Another small crowd is expected this weekend when the Bruins (1-0) meet Alabama State for the first time (2-0) against a Football Championship Subdivision School. UCLA is favored by 50½ points, making onfield drama unlikely save for a halftime show with the Mighty Marching Hornets, Alabama State’s most decorated band.

Temperatures are expected to hit the low to mid 80s with a chance of rain offering a respite from the scorching heat of the previous week. For UCLA fans tired of seeing a mostly empty Rose Bowl, the biggest relief might come with larger crowds later in the season.

“I think this team can do some good things this year,” Nathanson said, “and hopefully by the SC game, 90,000 people will be in the Rose Bowl like it should be.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-09-08/ucla-football-attendance-woes-hit-new-low-chip-kelly UCLA’s attendance woes hit new low under Chip Kelly

Emma Bowman

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