As of Monday afternoon, tickets were lagging for Washington State’s football opener with Rutgers Thursday night at CenturyLink Field. With the count at 26,000 scarcely 72 hours out, WSU athletic director Bill Moos says the crowd might top out in the mid-30s. That would make it the smallest gathering in the 12-year history of WSU’s game at this venue.
(It also would appear to cinch the notion that WSU will be saying sayonara to Seattle after this one, as Moos told me recently.)
Got to admit, the poor sales surprise me. I figured 45,000 was kind of the over/under on good gate/weak gate, and that mark now appears very unlikely. My reasoning was based on WSU being an entertaining, watchable team coming off a bowl game; Rutgers being a big-conference opponent (if not a big-name opponent) coming off a bowl game; and the general buzz that surrounds a season opener.
All those factors may be overstated. Or maybe I underestimated a couple of very strong indicators that can’t be ignored:
— Fans are creatures of habit, and a Thursday night, Aug. 28 opener at a neutral site certainly isn’t habitual.
— Having covered college football in the Northwest for a lot of years, I could go back to a lot of examples of the host schools drawing poorly on Labor Day weekend. It just doesn’t seem to be prominent in the mindset of fans (I’d exempt Seahawk-crazed fans from the phenomenon, even for exhibition games). If you don’t believe me, refer to the crowd at Qwest Field (then called) for the 2005 opener to the Tyrone Willingham regime at Washington against Air Force. The Huskies drew an official 26,482 that day.
But back to that first factor. Even though the Rutgers game time has long been in place, this appears another example of fans disliking to be moved out of their comfort zone. They want Saturday games, and though they differ on what time they’d like them, they want them to be at regular times (which, of course, nowadays they are anything but because of television).
Though Thursday-night games on ESPN (this one happens to be on Fox Sports 1) have become a gateway to the weekend, it’s doubtful they’re a hit with paying fans, especially those in the West who may have to commute. WSU drew an awful crowd of 20,617 last Halloween night for Arizona State on a Thursday night. A couple of years ago, when Washington was having its stadium remodeled and hosted No. 8 Stanford at CenturyLink, it drew 55,941 — certainly not a bad crowd, but nowhere near a sellout.
Can’t say as I buy into this, but some fans won’t invest any sort of driving distance into attending the game. A 7 p.m. start means they get home late and face a short night before work the next day.
It also has to do with the surroundings at CenturyLink that may be relatively unfamiliar to college fans. They might not know where to park. They face tailgating restrictions. I’ve had UW fans tell me a game at the place doesn’t have a college feel, and they won’t go back.
This week, it appears they have kindred spirits in Cougar fans.