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Home field advantage: WKU’s struggle to ‘pack the Houch’

This story was originally published in the Nov. 6 newsmagazine.
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Dominic Di Palermo
A cheerleader runs with a WKU flag after the first touch down during a game against the University of South Florida at Smith Stadium in Bowling Green on Saturday, Sept. 2.

The cool breeze of college football swept over Houchens-Smith Stadium last October in a pivotal game against their in-conference opponent, UAB. Down three with a quarter and a half to go, Quarterback Austin Reed snuck into the endzone, capping off a 10-point comeback to keep the Hilltoppers in the Conference-USA Championship conversation.

The crowd went mild.

This is not a reaction unfamiliar to Hilltopper faithful. For years, WKU football has struggled to keep up the attendance standards set by their conference counterparts. Last season, the 11 members of C-USA saw its highest average attendance since 2016 with around 19,300. Yet, the Hilltoppers struggled to play host to over 15,000 on any given occasion throughout the last eight years.

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While the 2023 season is seeing growth in those numbers, averaging close to 17,000 per home contest, the Hilltoppers are yet to sell out a football game since hosting the University of Indiana in September 2021. Should fans be surprised by these statistics? The answer, according to the last 10 years, is no.

Over the last 10 years, barring the 2020 restrictions, Houchens-Smith Stadium has averaged an attendance of 16,220, nearly 5,900 away from the venue’s full capacity. A stadium that, even with a recent renovation in 2009, still holds the third lowest maximum

capacity in the conference, and sits at the bottom 5% of maximum capacity in all of D-1 college football.

From 2015-2017, WKU Football boasted their best seasons since joining the Football Bowl Series (FBS). During that time, they went a combined 23-5, with an 11-1 home record. The correlation? Those two seasons also saw the highest average attendance in program history.

The Hilltoppers play incredibly well at home. In the last 20 years, WKU has a 65-43 home record, while their road record sits under .500, at 57-67. This means that WKU has a 24% higher win percentage at home than on the road during these seasons, 3.7% higher than the national average.

WKU also happens to play well at neutral locations. Most recently, their back-to-back bowl wins at the 2021 Boca Raton Bowl and the 2022 New Orleans Bowl brought WKU’s neutral site win percentage to 62%.

Whether this means that the team is affected by the fans or the fans are affected by the program’s successes is unknown, but the numbers suggest the idea that it was likely a combination of both.

After the hiring of WKU Football Head Coach, Tyson Helton, Athletic Director Todd Stewart held a specific accountability to the teams recent performance.

“We have lost fans,” Stewart said in November of 2018 during a press conference, “We have to get them back, and the best way to get them back is to play an exciting brand of football and win games, and that’s what our objective is. We did that before.”

The 2009 renovation is one of many efforts the university has put into creating a solution for capacity problems. A $37.5 million investment was the university’s solution to the “tired” and “rundown” field of the early 2000s.

“This stadium is tired, it’s rundown and it’s long overdue to be renovated,” former WKU Director of Athletics Wood Selig said in February 2007 at the ribbon cutting for the revived Houchens-Smith Stadium.

WKU is still doing its part in promoting growth in football events. This season’s home match-up against the Liberty Flames featured a pre-game concert by country star Jordan Davis. Previously, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal performed a pregame show under his music alias “D.J. Diesel.”

In fact, neither of those games were able to host over 75% of the maximum attendance.

These events promotions are still unable to compete with the yearly revolving door of Parent’s Weekend and Homecoming. The 2019 home opener against Central Arkansas was the last time that a non-Parents Weekend or Homecoming event placed in the top two attended games of a season. Even with that, Parent’s Weekend still was the highest-attended game of that season.

A difference in ticket sales is expected between a Tuesday night game and the two biggest weekends of WKU’s Fall semester. However, the standard set by the remaining 130 FBS teams suggests that it can be done in Bowling Green. The 2021 WKU football team was rightly considered to be one of the most exciting offenses in college football. Current New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe, who led the charge of that offense, passed for the most yards in FBS history. On top of that, WKU averaged the second highest points per game of that season.

Zappe would take the Hilltoppers to the conference championship, where the team would suffer an eight-point loss against UTSA.

Even with the explosive offense that had pundits around the nation discussing WKU, Houchens-Smith Stadium would not even crack the top 100 in average attendance. The solution of C-USA was to provide fans with an extra reason to stay home on Saturday nights.

C-USA reached an agreement with CBS Sports and ESPN to broadcast 18 C-USA football games throughout the 2023-2024 season. WKU received the opportunity to play in four of those games and host two at home.

While this has produced success for the program’s national recognition, it appears that a university with an already wounded stadium population is making strides to build a larger national audience rather than a fanbase in their hometown.

WKU President Timothy Caboni spoke on the matter of Hilltopper Football’s entrance into the national streaming sphere in a January interview with the Herald Editorial Board.

“What Conference USA decided was for us to have a standalone presence on linear television so ESPNU, ESPN2 and sometimes on ESPN, perhaps that we would shift our games to when there weren’t other games,” Caboni said.

With the rise of streaming service viewership throughout college football, stadium populations have dwindled. At-home college football streaming is up 12% in the 2023 season and has been on a 28% rise in the past five years. Game attendance itself is on an inverse path, recently declining to its lowest mark since 1981.

Since the start of the 2023 season, WKU has seen over 3.5 million viewers tune into their streamed games. This number is supported by a very top-heavy road game to Ohio State, which contributed 2.82 million. Other games, including the Louisiana Tech and Jacksonville State games, both broke the 100,000 mark.

Yet, WKU’s singular experience in competing with Power-5 conferences in the streaming realm came on a Saturday afternoon in Troy, Alabama as the Hilltoppers took on the Trojans.

In a time slot where Michigan, Florida State, Clemson and Cincinnati reigned supreme, less than 30,000 people tuned in for WKU.

While it seems that any C-USA team would struggle to compete with the likes of SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 schools for prime-time spots, WKU and the rest of the conference are now being rewarded with playing games on nights that they are the sole entertainment.

The weekday night games are not only being used as a hope to expand the Hilltoppers’ national audience, but are also an opportunity to provide students with an easier choice about coming to games without having to sacrifice their weekends.

“To be candid, it presents an opportunity for students who might not want to go to a game on a Saturday, perhaps, but absolutely will come to an event on a Tuesday night for example,” Caboni said.

When asked about his opinion on the schedule revival, Harrison Boso, a member of the class of 2025, agreed with Caboni’s sentiment of a free weekend for WKU students and spoke highly on the current state of WKU Football’s 2023 schedule.

“Personally, you know, I love college football Saturdays,” Boso said, “But also, you know, a lot of times with weekends like traveling and such it can be busy for a lot of people … I think that the Tuesday night games give everyone a chance to get to come out to the games at WKU.”

The first-weekday game of the season was WKU’s biennial honor to host the ‘100 Miles of Hate’ against MTSU. However, it has been the least attended home football game of the season thus far.

Though this rivalry stretches only 100 miles, as the name suggests, WKU seldom brings the level of energy to the stands that the players provide on the field. This lack of pride for an event so rich in Hilltopper history sets a certain standard for current opponents coming into Houchens-Smith Stadium.

The rivalries of the past, including ‘The Battle of the Bluegrass’ with Eastern Kentucky University and ‘The Battle for the Red Belt’ with Murray State, are long forgotten in the modern WKU regime.

Approaching their tenth year in the conference, the Hilltoppers are still dealing with the modern struggles of balancing century-old rivalries and creating new reasons for the next generation of students on the Hill to be excited about the prospect of WKU football.

After a 2018 home game against the University of Texas El Paso, Stewart commented on the energy he experienced in the final game played at Houchens-Smith Stadium that season. This game featured less than 6,500 fans.

“It really hurt for [the players] because of the complete lack of energy we had in the stadium that night from a crowd standpoint,” Stewart said of the team’s seniors. “Their final Topper Walk—it might have had a hundred people there—and that just, that can’t be. And unfortunately, that’s what we’ve come to.”

Sports Reporter Luke Edmonds can be reached at [email protected]

Sports Reporter Jake McMahon can be reach at michael.mcmahon480@ topper.wku.edu