SALT LAKE CITY — Years ago, upon learning that a UCLA home football game against BYU drew a good crowd, University of Southern California administrators wanted in on scheduling the Cougars.
The result was a home-and-home series between the perennial national powerhouse and the much lower-profile program from the Mountain West Conference. In another forthcoming series, USC will play at LaVell Edwards Stadium next month.
The numbers show that hosting BYU in a football game can amount to better attendance, an increase of as much as several fans depending on the location and opponent. USC’s decision to play BYU helped lead to a crowd of 75,315 for the game in September 2003 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Cougars are expected to have more than 7,000 fans in attendance for their game against Tennessee in Knoxville on Sept. 14. According to reports, BYU already has sold its entire allotment of lower-level tickets (2,121) and the alumni association has sold 3,500 tickets.
No doubt, BYU has a national following. Wherever the football team goes, fans flock.
BYU is a “Power Five fan base. Always has been,” longtime national college football columnist and editor at The Athletic Stewart Mandel wrote in a tweet this week.
When an apparent Utah fan called him on it, noting that BYU has failed to sell out its 64,000-seat stadium for many games in recent seasons, Mandel did not back down. “Their average attendance is higher than your stadium’s capacity,” Mandel responded.
Their average attendance is higher than your stadium's capacity.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) August 13, 2019
Stadium size aside, the point is not to run down the attendance of other programs. As in most cases, more winning usually equals better home crowds.
The bigger issue, as Mandel articulates, is BYU’s ability to draw on the road. There is a reason, unlike many Power Five programs, why athletic director Tom Holmoe can routinely schedule a home-and-home series with some of the game’s heavyweights. Although the program has yet to follow through with its current negotiated deal, Notre Dame has played in Provo in prior years.
Any argument against BYU having a national fan base usually involves the university’s association with its sponsor, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The theory goes that BYU fans don't actually travel, rather local church members attend the game due to the religious affiliation.
In the final analysis, either diehard or casual, the intensity of the paying customer makes no difference. All that matters is they show up, having paid for the tickets.
The ability to bring fans, or have the locals show up, is critical to BYU’s survival in football. As an independent, the program’s viability depends on being able to schedule games with quality opponents.
The other aspect of sustainability as an independent is the association with ESPN. BYU could have never survived leaving the Mountain West without a contract with the cable sports network.
The downside of the deal, as BYU fans can attest to, is the consistent late Saturday night start times. But even if the Cougars were in a conference, as Utah and Utah State fans can attest to, they would still have a fair share of late kickoffs.
Going forward, to make all the late starts more palatable, BYU has to schedule more attractive games later in the season. Rather than play the likes of Northern Illinois or Toledo, the program would be better served by scheduling as many games as possible against more familiar foes, namely from the Mountain West and Pac-12.
BYU has a total of six games scheduled against the Mountain West and Pac-12 next season, split evenly between the two conferences. Other attractive games are against Michigan State, Missouri and Houston.
Of course, winning matters the most. If BYU puts an excellent product on the field, no matter the opponent, fans will show up.