If Kroger Field isn’t loud and loaded come Saturday night when undefeated Kentucky takes on undefeated and 14th-ranked Mississippi State in a key SEC football contest, then Mitch Barnhart will know he has a major problem.
As of Tuesday morning, the Courier-Journal reported over 14,000 tickets remained for the 7 p.m. kickoff, which can also be seen on ESPN2. Only 43,600 tickets had been distributed for a stadium that seats 61,000.
This follows back-to-back home crowds of less than 50,000. The season opener against Central Michigan drew announced attendance of 49,138 — the announced figure is tickets distributed not actual attendance — the lowest for a home opener since 2012. Announced attendance for UK-Murray State last Saturday was 48,217. It’s the first time since 1988 Kentucky’s first two home games failed to crack 50,000.
True, Central Michigan and Murray State are not marquee draws. The former is a member of the Mid-American Conference. The latter plays FCS football, a lower division than UK’s FBS designation. Neither visitor brought a sizable following to Lexington.
UK’s streak-snapping win over Florida on Sept. 15 was supposed to fix all that. After lagging season ticket sales, followed by the disappointing turnout for the opener, the theory was Kentucky fans were waiting to see what the Cats would do in The Swamp before they committed their hearts, souls and disposable income to Mark Stoops’ Cats.
Hasn’t happened. Not yet, anyway. Despite it being “Heroes’ Day” to honor military and first responders, home attendance last week was officially its lowest since Nov. 17, 2012, when only 46,749 tickets were distributed for 1-9 Kentucky’s win over Samford in what was Joker Phillips’ final home game as head coach.
And it might not even happen this week despite the fact this appears to be a good Kentucky team playing a very good SEC opponent in a night game — traditionally UK students and fans love night games — with plenty at stake.
“I just hope and expect to have a great crowd,” Stoops said Monday. “I’m sure we will. The Big Blue Nation has not disappointed us in these big opportunities. The team is excited about being here and being in this environment and working extremely hard this week to give ourselves an opportunity to win.”
It’s not just Kentucky, of course. College football attendance dropped last season for the fourth straight year. We’ve rehashed the reasons: A saturation of televised games; escalating ticket prices — $42 is the cheapest Saturday ticket; traffic problems; paying into the K-fund for parking; high concession prices; a feeling the 2015 stadium renovation did more for the luxury box owners than the average fan.
Some argue the players deserve fan support, a theme UK has played off of recently with “lift us up” campaigns in hopes of generating better crowds for last year’s Music City Bowl and this year’s opener. Don’t count me in that camp. I’m not in the business of telling the public how to spend its money. Plus, college football is big business. Ask the UK fan who supported years of losing seasons and then was priced out of his or her seat whether loyalty is more than a one-way street.
Saturday should be the exception to all that. This is Stoops’ best team since he came to UK in 2013. He’s 17-12 overall and 9-8 in the SEC over the past two-plus years. Terry Wilson is a dynamic quarterback. Benny Snell could end up the school’s all-time leading rusher. Josh Allen is a potential first-round NFL Draft pick at outside linebacker. And while Mississippi State is a two-touchdown favorite, no one would be shocked if UK pulls the upset.
“For the first time in awhile, Kentucky’s success seems legitimate,” SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback, told Paul Finebaum this week.
If Kroger Field isn’t packed (or close to it) Saturday night, UK’s ticket problem is legitimate, as well.
No. 14 Mississippi State at Kentucky
7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Kentucky football home attendance under Mark Stoops
Note: Because of stadium renovation before the 2015 season, listed capacity at Kroger Field dropped from 67,000 to 61,000.