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Mike Anthony: UConn Teams Are Down, So Attendance Is Down, And The Rebuild Has Begun

Mike Anthony
Contact Reportermanthony@courant.com

Numbers aren't needed to understand that attendance is down, way down, at UConn football games. The gray stretches of cement and empty metal bleachers at Rentschler Field showcase a depressing reality.

The jokes — "Plenty of good seats available" — sound like the product and stadium have sometimes looked in recent years: Old and tired. Losing football and, as much so, boring football will keep fans away, or at least in the parking lot until the beer runs out in the second quarter.

Same goes for men’s basketball games. We don’t need to cite numbers. You know they’re down because you see the empty sections at Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center and realize, wow, how dramatically the program has fallen from that 2014 mountaintop, becoming an unwatchable mess at times over the past two seasons.

Just to put some scores up on the board, though …

-- Football’s average home attendance last season was 20,334, well below the previous low (26,796 the year before) since the program went to what is now FBS in 2002.

-- Men’s basketball averaged 7,829 in home attendance last season, the program’s lowest in 30 years.

Meanwhile, women’s basketball is humming along, outdrawing the men’s team, nearly making as much money as the men in game revenue and even coming about $200,000 shy of matching football game revenue.

Fans love a winner, of course, which is why the program that some argue is the least compelling during the regular season, with one blowout victory after another, is actually the most intriguing. That, and this: UConn women’s fans care about seeing UConn, with less concern for the opponent. That’s how it needs to be in every sport, fans not worrying so much about the guest. When UConn was transitioning from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference in 2013, Geno Auriemma said it didn’t matter because “we’re in a league of our own.” And he was right.

But as football and men’s basketball have struggled, it’s been easier to point blame in other directions. UConn-Tulsa doesn’t have the buzz of UConn-Syracuse in either sport. It never will. Diana Taurasi, in the state last week to play against the Connecticut Sun, is friends with some former UConn football players, Dan Orlovsky among them, and said she is excited to return to Rentschler this fall for a football game and added, with a smirk, “I hear there’s a big one against Temple.”

Each program can get back its buzz by fixing only what it can fix — its own product — and UConn has recognized the issues and is working toward corrections. The Huskies are at the outset of this, in a delicate financial position, in transition with its two struggling programs, getting creative with nonconference schedules and trying to improve the overall fan experience in every building.

Football returns to The Rent Aug. 30 when the Huskies open against Central Florida, a Thursday night game under the lights for a team and program under the microscope in the public's informal viability study. The program has been on a downward spiral, without a winning season since 2010 culminated with an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, and the more this goes on, the louder and more prevalent become cries to flush the program altogether from the FBS level.

It is year two of #REStorred, the second season for coach Randy Edsall since his return to resurrect a program that slept under Paul Pasqualoni and even under Bob Diaco, a man whose conservative brand of football stretched light years from his zany persona. Diaco press conferences were fascinating, with talk of "Molotov cocktails of ugliness" and strange analogies, like the time he equated trying to score in the red zone to a space shuttle's attempt to re-enter the atmosphere.

Insert the SMH emoji here.

Anyway, fans lost interest. Just like in men’s basketball, where Ollie lost his grip on a program that he did lead to a national championship out of the AAC. Dan Hurley, with the fire to have already inspired players and a fan base, is in charge now and there’s a different perception of the program inside and out of the athletic department offices. The pride is back, or at least on its way, and more fans will be back, we presume.

Edsall’s history with the Huskies brings credibility to the program and his approach brings stability to a situation of damage and increasing fan apathy. He understands the importance of attempting to play, at least to some degree, an entertaining brand of football.

Losing is one thing. Losing while choosing not to return punts and failing on offense with one handoff after another is insufferable. It’s no lock that the Huskies can work their way over the next few years toward the middle or top of the AAC, but at least the offensive keys have been given to men with imagination -- Rhett Lashlee first, now John Dunn — and at least there’s some commitment to getting more in line with an increasingly high-scoring sport.

More important, Edsall recognizes that he’s a salesman as much as a coach. He has made every area of his program more accessible to the media, a move representative of the approach by the university as a whole.

The UConn Coaches Road Show brought Edsall, Hurley, Auriemma and other coaches — baseball’s Jim Penders, field hockey’s Nancy Stevens, men’s hockey’s Mike Cavanaugh — to public outreach events in Glastonbury, Branford, Stamford and New York. The message to hundreds of fans gathered at each was, “We need you.”

UConn does need you in the seats. UConn needs the money you’ll spend. But UConn needs to deliver, too. Fans have been silently screaming by not showing up. Fans have a right to be disenchanted with what they’ve seen and paid for. Two key UConn products have been flat. It’s hard to blame the public for staying away.

UConn gets this. UConn, at least, is making efforts — direct and indirect, grassroots and otherwise — to get you back in the buildings. Now the Huskies have to start looking like major college programs again, winning programs, because that, ultimately, is the only solution.

The right people are in place to make it happen.

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