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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 2017 season was a tough one for Pitt football, with the Panthers finishing 5-7 and out of the postseason for the first time in a decade.
It was also a tough year at the box office for the Panthers, with an average of 36,295 fans coming through the gates at Heinz Field, the second-lowest in the stadium’s history.
While the on-field issues are firmly under head coach Pat Narduzzi’s purview as far as making corrections for 2018, the attendance issues are a bit wider-scoped.
On the whole, attendance at NCAA FBS games in 2017 dropped three percent from 2016, the largest per-season decrease in college football’s history and the third consecutive season of decline.
Pitt’s attendance dropped 21.2 percent from 2016 to 2017, though that probably had much more to do with the team’s downturn in fortunes and the lack of a marquee opponent like Penn State in 2016 than any structural failing of the program.
It’s an issue that’s effected most of the ACC’s 14 football teams, and it’s resulted in serious conversations about what can be done with ACC commissioner John Swofford’s office.
“That’s one of the great things about a conference is schools can spend time together and share ideas and what works and what doesn’t work, because we’re in a period now where people’s ability to watch a game is phenomenal, you know, whether it’s your phone or your living room, and it’s a quality experience, particularly in your living room,” Swofford said Wednesday at ACC Kickoff.
One of the things that the ACC keeps coming back to is in the in-game experience. For Pitt, that issue can be a tricky one. There’s only so much the Panthers can do as part-time tenants of Heinz Field. But it seems that many of the changes Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke made, including rearranging the seating, moving the band and student section for 2018, were done with that goal in mind.
“I think what our schools are finding is sharing that kind of information about the in-stadium experience and also modernizing stadiums and bringing them up to snuff, so to speak, so that the in-game experience is as good as it can be, and that can start on the field with the product, and it can also start on the field with keeping the game going,” Swofford said.
The other thing that the conference is working towards is more in their control. With the thought process that a younger generation will be more easily captivated by a product presented in a smaller package, Swofford and company are hoping to continue to work toward keeping game lengths down.
“We’re continually working at reducing the length of games,” he said. “I really harp on this all the time with our officials particularly, so I’m pleased to tell you that the ACC in terms of conference games, we had the shortest length of conference games of any of our peer conferences last year and I think the year before, as well, if I’m not mistaken. And that’s a good thing.
“We keep looking at rules changes that also may shorten the game because Major League Baseball is dealing with this right now, with attendance down and people complaining about the length of games and rules changes they’re trying to make without taking away the soul of the game itself.
“But I think it’s a trend we have to keep an eye on. You want to be developing young fans. You want to be developing students into fans while they’re there because generally they’re the ones who go on, and as they have some successes in life, give back to our booster clubs and our universities. So it’s an all-encompassing issue that is about the field, it’s about fans’ total experience from parking to concessions to bathrooms to comfort in their seats to reception they can get on their mobiles while they’re in the stadium. You know, all of those things come into play.”