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Attendance in focus in AAC

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East Carolina fans cheer after a Pirate touchdown during the first half against Virginia Tech at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Sept. 16. The stadium was mostly empty late in the fourth quarter of what ended as a 64-17 VT win.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Friday, October 6, 2017

East Carolina has been a consistent force at the forefront of American Athletic Conference football home attendance since joining the league in 2014, and ECU is No. 1 so far this season, but attendance at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium could be on the decline and it comes at a time when other teams are making a push to boost their fan support.

The Pirates’ overall attendance numbers include a solid base in season-ticket sales and ECU has always been known for its passionate fans, but its average home attendance through three games is at 39,609 and the Pirates haven’t had that number finish below 40,000 since 2006. The highest-ever average was 50,012 in 2011.

The announced crowd for the marquee home game of this season -—Sept. 16 against Virginia Tech — was 43,776. Last Saturday’s was 34,883 for a mostly competitive contest, but No. 18 USF pulled away for a 61-31 win.

Houston is second in the AAC in average home attendance at 37,642. Central Florida (36,042) is third, and Knights coach Scott Frost made a public push for better crowds after his team beat Memphis 40-13 in Orlando last week to move to 3-0 before entering the AP Top 25 this week.

As others push for more fans, which includes 18th-ranked South Florida, the 1-4 Pirates are trying to keep theirs patient and in the stands.

“I think our fans are trying to hang in there with us and be as patient as they can,” Pirate coach Scottie Montgomery said. “I think it is critically important, definitely, to win some games at home. I know everybody knows that we have played a tough schedule, but winning is what’s important.”

Winning can cure a lot of angst within a program. The Pirates’ home contest Saturday at noon against Temple has been coined all along as “winnable,” even though the also-struggling Owls (2-3) were listed Thursday as 2.5-point favorites.

ECU went 3-3 at home a season ago and is 0-3 this year.

The crowd was loud at times during the first half against Va. Tech and again versus South Florida, but all three of the Pirates’ home games have featured mostly empty seats during the fourth quarter.

When asked about fans not staying for the entirety of games, Montgomery took ownership in the team fading after halftime.

“What’s more noticeable to me is the reason they have chosen to leave, and that’s because we didn’t play to a certain level in the fourth quarter,” he said.

USF is coached by Charlie Strong, who was formerly the head coach at big-time programs Texas and Louisville. With his team viewed as a frontrunner from the Group of Five to make a major bowl, Strong also has looked at ways to improve his team’s attendance that right now is at a season average of 28,730 that ranks seventh out of 12 league teams.

“I actually had a conversation with our mayor here (in Tampa) and our chamber of commerce, and I just said to them that we have a really good football team and we just need support and everybody on board,” Strong said. “We need people to come out to the games.”

Attendance seems to be a hot topic in the American, which is trying to make a push to even itself in national perception with the Power Five conferences in the sport. Attendance numbers at some of the leading schools could be a factor as part of that process.

While recognizing subpar atmospheres at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium during the fourth quarter this year, Montgomery also expressed optimism in the Pirates’ long-term connection with their fans.

“We have the best fan culture in this conference, so once the product is exactly where it’s supposed to be, we don’t have worry about it,” Montgomery said.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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