The annual tradition of reading entirely too much into spring game attendance numbers is indeed football overkill, but packing stadiums in March and April isn’t just about getting a bunch of bodies in the same place at the same time.
Although scrimmage support is, well, scrimmage support, the fans play a role greater than giving a solid out-of-season bump in concession sales.
There’s momentum at work.
As spring football slowly but surely reaches a conclusion and we file back into our offseason hibernation chambers, attendance numbers for spring games begin to circulate. These numbers have become more hotly discussed in recent years, and fanbases everywhere (or at least in the SEC) often set their sights on taking home the offseason’s lone championship trophy.
Alabama, of course, has dominated this category—and most other categories, really—in recent memory. The program’s storied tradition as well as its overwhelming recent success have helped to produce monster A-Day attendance figures.
Before this year, Alabama had seen 516,536 fans attend its last six spring football games. That’s an average of 86,089 fans, a number that is remarkable compared with just about every other school.
In 2013, Alabama saw this average take a slight dip, but not by much. A total of 78,315 fans enjoyed an afternoon in Bryant-Denny Stadium this past weekend, still an incredible figure compared with the entire nation. This, however, was far from a surprise.
We expect to see a packed house for Alabama, regardless of whether the score actually matters. Three national championships in four seasons don’t exactly go unnoticed. Add in a passionate and dedicated group of fans, and there you have it.
Yet despite the monster attendance number for the seventh consecutive year, another SEC team took home spring game bragging rights (at least for the moment). Ah, and it’s not just any SEC team.
The Auburn Tigers had 83,401 fans on hand to get a taste of new head coach Gus Malzahn and his progress in year one. After raking in one of the nation’s finest recruiting classes—and doing so in an Urban Meyer-like hurry—optimism has returned to a program only a few years removed from a crystal football run.
They were not alone in having an impressive spring turnout.
Tennessee, also with a new head coach, saw a robust 61,076 fans attend its spring game. Although the Vols, under Butch Jones, haven’t lit up the recruiting trail quite like Malzahn, the reports out of Rocky Top are positive in the early going.
Also getting involved in the attendance fun was none other than the Kentucky Wildcats. No, this wasn’t a Midnight Madness typo. Yes, this is for football.
Under new head coach Mark Stoops, Kentucky is making a bit of noise. Its recruiting has already drastically improved, and while there is much work to be done, a foundation for success is being built. Kentucky’s spring game turnout of 50,831 fans certainly paints a vastly different picture of the program than we’ve seen in recent years.
Yes, Kentucky outdrew Texas, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Georgia and many, many more in a football scrimmage. Auburn and Tennessee did as well, meaning three teams with a combined SEC record of 1-23 in 2012 are in the top six in spring football attendance with a few games yet to be played.
Playing in the SEC certainly has much to do with these results, as does the lovely weather that has yet to make its way to much of the country. Still, it’s more than that. It’s optimism and blind faith in a new regime. It’s buzz and a fanbase craving improvement. It's real support in hopes that this is the beginning of something more.
For comparison’s sake, some notable spring attendance figures from this year's games are listed below.
Although it requires no disclaimer, it bears repeating: Spring football attendance has absolutely zero correlation to fall results. Once the game is over, these numbers will be used as water-cooler bragging rights and ammunition for a few days, maybe even a few weeks for the dedicated bunch, and then forgotten.
The numbers, however, aren't without meaning. They signify cautious optimism at places like Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky that are looking for positive attention any way they can grab it, especially given the stacked deck they're already up against in the SEC.
Although spring football attendance figures may not seem like much, when’s the last time Kentucky football was a topic of conversation in April?
These numbers are a little extra marketing for teams that will gladly take it, so don’t discount the buzz that they can provide. Fan support may seem like a given for the likes of Alabama and the elite, but this is new ground for programs with new faces.
New coaches crave a fresh start, and getting fans involved in an integral part of that process. It’s impossible to pinpoint what this means in the long run, but the added interest in the football program can only be a positive. Ole Miss saw this buzz build throughout the 2012 season, and the result was a recruiting class for the ages and a much different national perception.
Results in the fall are a different story, and in the end, that's what matters. Still, at a time when these numbers garner more eyeballs and interest than ever, it's good to be on the right side.
Does this mean you should be walking around puffy-chested, celebrating your spring football attendance achievement award? I certainly hope not. But it’s perhaps not as simple as butts in seats, either. Take momentum in any possible shape and form and see what comes of it.
Small victories, especially at a time when making up ground is difficult, are still victories.