CONWAY, S.C. (WMBF) - Since Coastal Carolina University made the switch to the Sun Belt Conference, the university has spent millions on upgrades and reportedly increased its game attendance by thousands, but empty stands remain.
WMBF Investigates sat down with Coastal Carolina’s Athletic Director Matt Hogue to discuss the numbers and the football program’s second full season in the Sun Belt Conference.
Coastal Carolina University closed out its 2019 football season with an average attendance of around 15,000 fans per home game.
The average is one of the lowest of the Sun Belt Conferences schools but a big increase from CCU’s previous season.
Nearly a decade ago, the Brooks Stadium averaged an attendance of around 7,700.
The stadium and its football program have gone through a lot of changes since 2010 including a $30 million stadium expansion and conference change.
After the university joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2016, it was required to expand its stadium capacity to meet NCAA requirements.
The NCAA requires schools to “average at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for all home football contests over a rolling two-year period,” according to the NCAA Division I Bylaws.
CCU reported an increased attendance by 6,500 fans during its first official year in the Sun Belt Conference, but in 2018 that record attendance didn’t hold up.
The university’s 2018 average attendance saw a stark decrease of more than 4,000 fans.
Hogue explained the university needs to meet the 15,000 attendance requirement at least every other year.
He said weather was one factor that negatively impacted attendance numbers last year.
The Wall Street Journal found among 100 top football programs, CCU had the widest gap between tickets scanned and announced attendance during its 2017 season. The newspaper found the university only scanned 15,248 as opposed to the 89,794 total announced throughout the season.
Hogue said the university reports ‘paid attendance’ rather than ‘actual attendance’. He explained selling tickets is something the university can control more than who is going to actually show up for the game.
“We use the paid attendance because the NCAA allows us to use the paid attendance and if we want to meet our obligations in terms of the bylaw, we feel like that gives us the best chance to meet it,” Hogue said.
The NCAA bylaws explain that universities cannot count players, cheerleaders or stadium employees in the attendance total but band members can be included in the average 15,000 attendance minimum.
Hogue also said one reason the gap between scanned and announced attendance is that students’ tickets are not scanned. Students enter the stadium through a turnstile.
While the university is focused on selling tickets first, Hogue said that doesn’t mean they don’t also focus on improving game turnout.
“We want to do everything we can within our affordable resources to make it a good environment to make sure we have people there, but obviously, you know, at the end of the day we can’t control a season ticket holder to decide to do something else with their time on a Saturday,” Hogue said.
Beginning in the 2019 season, Coastal allowed students to redeem dining hall meal swipes for food at the Brooks Stadium concession stands. Additionally, leading up to a nationally televised game against the University of Louisiana, CCU canceled all afternoon classes. These are just part of the department’s continued push to get students to ‘redeem’ their tickets.
He also said the university has had success increasing its season ticket base over the years.
Hogue said he prefers to look at revenue as a metric of fan engagement. Athletic revenue across all sports has increased in the last three years.
Football ticket sales generated 70% of all ticket sale revenue as of June 2018, according to CCU reports. Football ticket revenue increased by nearly $500,000 from 2012 to 2018. More than half of that increase came in the season the university was switching from the FCS to the Sun Belt.
“I’m pleased with our progress. We’re moving in the right direction, but the consumption, if you will, is moving in the right direction. Does that mean where we are, where we want to be? No. Does it mean that we still need to go forward and continue to put people into that stadium? Absolutely,” Hogue said. “And that’s a number one focus that we have every day in our office and with our staff, but there’s a lot of variables that you have to encounter and you have to navigate.”
Competing at the NCAA FBS Division 1 level is no cheap task.
The university initially wanted to expand its stadium to seat 22,000 fans but scaled back its plans after running into challenges receiving funding approval from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education (CHE).
Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the expansion back in 2016.
"The project, primarily funded by tuition-backed debt, nearly doubled in cost since its original proposal just last fall,” the State reported Haley said in 2016.
After the CHE rejected CCU’s proposal multiple times, the university decreased its budget and found a way around CHE’s approval.
After two years of construction, the $30 million project was unveiled earlier this year.
When asked about the challenges securing funding for the stadium, Hogue said, “I think anyone will tell you among our leadership that we ended up reaching a conclusion that we were happy with. The stadium is something that has a major impact on our community. It has major economic impact for a lot of reasons.”
He explained the stadium has hosted community events unrelated to athletics already and could possibly host concerts in the future.
“We’re really just now scratching the surface of what moving football to the FBS level is,” he said.
With the stadium upgrade behind them, CCU will need to focus on making that money back and continuing to grow its presence
CCU reported $32 million of its debt was related to athletics in June 2018. While that may sound like a lot, it only makes up 13% of CCU’s overall debt of $242 million.
In addition to debt, the university spent around $36 million on its athletic department in the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
Thirty percent of the $36 million in athletic expenses was put toward football.
Football expenses have increased by $4 million, while overall expenses have increased by about $14 million since 2012.
This money goes towards things like coaches’ salaries, marketing, scholarships, travel and uniforms.
Looking toward the future, Hogue said the department is always looking at tweaks and changes it can offer to enhance the fan experience.
“It would be, it’d be kind of irresponsible to try to say on this date, if we’re not X, then we failed,” Hogue said. “It’s always an evolving thing. I think what you have to do is you have to make sure that you’re kind of meeting some mileposts along the way. That’s why I point out where our revenue has been over the last three years and I point out some of the things that are very tangible measurements of, of where we’re going.”