NEWPORT, R.I. - For the University of Connecticut, how many people show up for its home football games this season is perhaps more important than how many wins the Huskies compile on the field.
Those two things are of course often linked, and the Huskies’ recent downturn in results is a major factor in the declining attendance at Pratt & Whitney Stadium. But the school has tried to make a push to get fans into the seats in East Hartford this season - not to mention in Storrs and Hartford for basketball games - with a summer of public events and pleas.
That isn’t necessarily, or at least exclusively, head coach Randy Edsall’s responsibility. But he understands the economic bind his school is currently in as it tries to compete for victories, and dollars, at college football’s highest level.
“I get the big picture. I mean this in a positive way, people just need to come out and enjoy the game. We’ll be better. But when we first started this thing, we weren’t winning and people were there,” Edsall, who is about to begin the second season of his second stint as UConn’s head coach, said this week.
Attendance at the Huskies’ home games has declined each season since 2010 except one but last season it took a major dip. UConn drew an average of just 20,335 fans per game at the 40,000-seat stadium still commonly referred to as The Rent. That’s a drop of more than 6,000 fans from the previous season and roughly half of what the average was during the heyday of Edsall’s first stint here.
Playing in a conference that doesn’t feature many of its former northeast rivals has clearly impacted attendance to some degree. Having not finished any of its last seven seasons with a winning record is also a major culprit.
And the fact that the American Athletic Conference doesn’t distribute money in anywhere close to the amount that bigger leagues do, UConn’s dearth of ticket sales is compounding its financial predicament.
The number of victories in a previous season sometimes correlates directly to the number of backsides in the seats for the following season. It’s not always as simple, however, UConn Athletic Director David Benedict points out.
“They’re two different issues. Obviously, typically when you win, the people come. I don’t think that would be any different in Connecticut than in most places,” Benedict said this week during the American’s Media Day in Rhode Island.
“But it’s really about creating an accountability with our fan base to have them take some ownership, just like coach (Edsall) is trying to get his team to take some ownership and be accountable for what they’re doing.”
Fans who clamor that UConn isn’t exactly big-time anymore in football as an excuse to stay away from games are the same ones who are in some ways at fault for the Huskies’ demise.
“We need our fan base to step up and be accountable if they want to have a quality football program and quality programs in general,” Benedict said. “You’ve got support the programs through thick and thin. That’s what great programs do. We have to try to re-engage our fan base and get them to start buying into that.”
Benedict has tried this summer to do that, taking Edsall and a number of other head coaches from his department on a bus tour of the area.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to engage our fan base, make it easy for them to come with flexibility in what they can purchase as well as being affordable. And we’re doing all those things,” Benedict said. “We need to see our fan base to respond.”
Because the Huskies open the season Aug. 30 against Central Florida, the self-proclaimed national champion from last season, perhaps there is reason for Benedict to be optimistic about the attendance.
“I would hope so. It certainly is a quality game. We’re going to be the first team to play them since they had their undefeated season,” Benedict said.
“If you like the game of football and you enjoy UConn, you should just come out,” Edsall said. “People say they want to be entertaining and all this stuff. All I want to do is win.”