ACC teams seeking new ways to lure bigger crowds
North Carolina wide receiver Ryan Switzer got tired of playing in front of empty seats, so he wrote a letter to fans. Syracuse coach Scott Shafer offered to buy every fan that bought a ticket a second one when the Orange opened the season against Villanova.
With the competition for the entertainment dollar so tough and empty seats painting a negative image of football programs, Atlantic Coast Conference schools are brainstorming ways to get more fans to games. Some have created fan zones outside of stadiums with live music, offered reduced season ticket packages and installed new video boards, all hoping an enhanced fan experience will do the trick.
North Carolina associate athletic director Paul Pogge said everyone faces the same challenge.
''Technology is kind of a double-edged sword,'' he said. ''It makes it easier to connect to your fans but at the same time it makes it easier for someone to stay home and watch the game on a big-screen television. ... We need to create a gameday experience that you can't replicate through technology.''
UNC is one many schools that has created an area offering live music and other pregame enhancements geared toward children and families.
''Every day is trying to figure out who are new demographics that we can target, who are new groups that we can get involved and (get to) come to Carolina for the first time,'' Pogge said.
The Tar Heels are expected to expected to contend for the Coastal Division title, but estimate that an average of 54,500 fans came to their 63,000-seat stadium the first two games of the season. Seeing those empty seats last season is what prompted Switzer to appeal to Tar Heels fans directly.
''We need you there early. We need you there loud,'' he wrote in a letter posted on Inside Carolina, an independent fan website. ''We need you enthusiastic. We need you crazy. ... It shows you care.''
Not all the league's schools are feeling the attendance pain.
Top-ranked Florida State and No. 23 Clemson have the biggest stadiums in the league, and usually fill them. The Tigers aren't as highly regarded on the field as they have been the past two season, but sold close to 56,000 season tickets, their third consecutive increase and highest total since 2008.
The Seminoles drew 81,294 - about 1,000 below capacity - for their home opener against The Citadel, and Clemson drew 78,000 - 3,500 below capacity - when it played South Carolina State.
Through the first two weeks of the season, ACC newcomer Louisville is the only school to have filled its home stadium to capacity, and that was in the Cardinals' opener against Miami. The crowd was a standing room only record for Louisville, where fans are excited about the return of coach Bobby Petrino.
Still, a week later, with Murray State visiting Cardinals, nearly 5,000 tickets went unused.
And when Miami returned home for its opener against Florida A&M, the Hurricanes - who play in a 74,916-seat stadium - drew just over 48,000.
The dwindling numbers have prompted some to turn to more drastic tactics - like the Syracuse coach ponying up for tickets himself.
The Orange had drawn an average of 36,012 fans to their previous five games against FCS competition. That's more than 13,000 below the Carrier Dome's capacity, prompting the coach's unusual offer.
It worked, to a degree, with 41,189 fans showing up.
Shafer doesn't know how many tickets he bought, but made the offer because he ''wanted to extend an opportunity to come out and watch their team play, just continue to come on out and support the team.''
Boston College and Miami perennially have attendance woes because of the plethora of professional teams in town, while Virginia's weak numbers might be a referendum on the program. Season ticket sales were down by more than 5,000, to 23,374, after Virginia went 2-10 last season.
Low expectations also have contributed to the Cavaliers averaging 39,641 fans for their first two games, about 22,000 below capacity. That includes a visit from then-No. 7 UCLA and presumptive Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley. The crowd of 44,749 was their lowest on opening day since 1998.
When they ended a 10-game skid and beat Richmond of the FCS last week, the crowd of 34,533 was the lowest in Scott Stadium since 1989, before the capacity went from 40,000 to 61,500. And it came on a Youth Day on which the first 5,000 kids in eighth grade and under received a drawstring bag.
At Virginia Tech, sellouts were once the norm, but the Hokies' string of 93 consecutive sellouts ended in last season's home opener against Western Carolina. Now, for the first time, the school offers ticket packages for a few games, instead of the whole season. Virginia Tech also has created a family friendly Hokie Village outside the stadium where fans can interact with other Virginia Tech athletes, get autographs, something to eat and hear live music.
Boston College tried to enhance the fan experience by doubling the size of its video boards, offering discounts for military veterans and children and by rewarding students for coming - and staying for the whole game. But when the Eagles opened at home against ACC rival Pittsburgh, only 30,083 turned out.
The fan promotions are still a work in progress - like they are for everyone in the ACC.
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Gray B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky, John Kekis in Syracuse, New York, Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina, and Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed to this report.
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