Attendance dips as Dogs disappoint

Georgia fans cheer in the rain at the Oct. 3 game against Alabama in Sanford Stadium. Curtis Compton /

ATHENS — Georgia will complete its home football schedule Saturday night against Georgia Southern, and as usual all of the tickets have been sold.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Sanford Stadium will be full, as was obvious at the Bulldogs’ most recent sold-out home game Nov. 7 against Kentucky.

Although the announced attendance for that game was Georgia’s standard 92,746 — defined as tickets sold plus passes issued — the actual attendance counted by the hand-held ticket scanners at the gates was 53,646, according to figures obtained from UGA by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via an open-records request.

Georgia officials said the announced attendance at each game includes at least 4,000 people who don’t have tickets scanned, such as band members, recruits, media, players’ guests, student-athletes, stadium workers and team staffs. Even so, the UGA figures indicate more than 30,000 people with tickets were no-shows for the Kentucky game — a reflection of the Bulldogs’ three losses in October and a poor weather forecast.

It was the smallest Sanford Stadium crowd since Georgia began using the electronic ticket scanners in the 2013 season, records show.

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said he believes “probably the biggest deterrent” to attending the Kentucky game was the forecast of rain, although conditions turned out to be OK during the game. But there also was the matter of Georgia’s dispiriting loss to Florida the week before, which ended the Bulldogs’ — and their fans’ — hopes of winning the SEC East.

“I’m sure there were a number of fans that were disappointed and chose not to come,” McGarity said this week, “but we want to thank the 55,000 or so that showed up for being there and helping us that day.”

McGarity said “it’ll be interesting to see” the turnout for Saturday’s 7 p.m. game against non-conference opponent Georgia Southern on what is expected to be a cold but dry night.

“We hope our fans will be there,” he said. “It’s Senior Day. We’re christening (mascot) Uga X. So hopefully all of that will bring people out to brave the elements … and do everything they can to help us win this game.”

Anticipating that the student turnout will be hurt by the start of Thanksgiving break, UGA recently put 2,000 tickets in the student sections up for sale to the general public. Those were gone by Friday, associate athletic director for ticket operations Tim Cearley said.

Georgia’s student turnout this season has ranged from 14,400-plus for the games against South Carolina and Alabama to 9,117 for the Kentucky game.

The overall actual attendance — students plus general public — through six home games is down an average of 8 percent per game compared to the first six games last season.

“Our numbers really have not been a concern in the big picture,” McGarity said. “But I do think that (Kentucky) game did create some numbers that are non-traditional for us. I don’t think it’s time to panic. I just think it’s a situation where a lot of things converged.”

To some, the crowd at the Kentucky game may have appeared significantly larger than the numbers show. That’s likely because fans tend to spread out across empty seats in the bleacher-style seating, making no-shows less obvious than in stadiums with all chair-back seats, Cearley noted.

The turnout for the noon game declined by 16,529 from the preceding home game against Missouri on Oct. 17.

According to the UGA figures, Sanford Stadium’s second lowest ticket-scan tally in the past three years was 59,512 for this season’s rainy game against Southern University on Sept. 26.

By contrast, the highest was 83,175 for a 2013 game against LSU and 82,362 for a 2014 game against Auburn. Adding the 4,000 or so without scanned tickets, more than 86,000 were in the stadium for those games, extremely low no-show rates for a sports event.

This season’s highest ticket-scan count was 78,434 for the Oct. 3 game against Alabama, a number that presumably would have been larger if not for another rainy day in Athens.

Although no-shows don’t affect UGA’s ticket revenue — all tickets, used or not, have been sold this season — they do cause a drop in concessions sales, which were $212,000 less at the Southern game than at the South Carolina game. On the other hand, “Hartman Fund” contributions to the athletic program for ticket priority totaled $26.2 million this year, up from $24.3 million the year before.

Still, attendance is under scrutiny as college-football programs across the nation — like NFL teams — are increasingly sensitive to some fans’ growing willingness to watch games on TV rather than in stadiums.

Several years ago, research identified wireless connectivity as the top fan-experience complaint in Sanford Stadium, McGarity said. Technology upgrades improved that, moving concessions and restrooms to the top of the complaints list.

Some $1 million has been invested to improve payments systems at concessions stands, and efforts will be made to improve restrooms in the 86-year-old stadium, McGarity said.

Of course, fans tend to be more willing to overlook such things if their team is winning championships.

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