December 12, 2012 in Sports

Finding the joy

Been there, done that paying off
By Correspondent
 
Tyler Tjomsland photoBuy this photo

EWU QB’s Kyle Padron, left, and Vernon Adams have helped the Eagles return to glory this season and find the fans.
(Full-size photo)

The proximity of Eastern Washington’s two extended runs through the FCS playoffs naturally has invited comparisons of the 2010 national championship team to this year’s model.

Most of them only mildly persuasive.

Yes, many of the principals are the same and these Eagles are at home on the high wire, too. But there is no Buchanan Award winning linebacker, no snap-crackle-pop sensation at running back and whatever thrills the time-share quarterbacks create, neither leads the tour group from Death Valley to Kilimanjaro quite the way Bo Levi Mitchell used to.

Speaking of the tour group, no APBs have been required to round up a crowd, either.

And that’s the biggest departure of all: Roos Field has some atmosphere this time around.

“Our team feels it, too,” said athletic director Bill Chaves.

True enough. Few football teams are as avowedly grateful for their support as the Eagles, and maybe none if you factor in the fan-to-player ratio.

Eastern hosts an FCS semifinal Saturday against Sam Houston State, the last obstacle to another trip to Frisco, Texas, and the national championship game. This will be Eastern’s 20th home football game in just three seasons. Sometime Saturday the 150,000th fan will pass through the gates since the joint was recarpeted and renamed.

Sure, that’s a number which gets exceeded by kickoff at the season’s second game at Michigan.

“I get it – we’re ‘proportional’ when all is said and done,” Chaves admitted. “But you can have a proportional electric atmosphere, and that’s what we’ve had.

“I walk out of those games and I try to leave my AD hat behind a little and I think, ‘If I’d paid to come there, that was worth the price of admission.’ ”

When Eastern launched its title run in 2010, all of 3,665 showed up for the first playoff game, followed by 4,060 the next week – for a team that had averaged 7,500 customers during the regular season.

Some teeth gnashing, scolding and rationalizing ensued. Nearly 30 years had passed since EWU first began the transition to Division I football and you’d think that’s long enough to build a legitimate audience. But in the end these things have to happen organically, on their own terms.

That both of Eastern’s playoff crowds this month have topped 7,000 is something Chaves sees as “sort of the evolution of program, not only on the field but off.

“What you have to remember is that we’d only had one home playoff game in Cheney before 2010. Obviously, winning the whole thing helps, but you had the feeling this year that people were just waiting for the playoffs, that there was an anticipation that wasn’t there before.”

Season ticket sales took a 100 percent jump after the championship season, and another bump this year. But everybody has to dig back into their pockets once the playoffs come around, and Chaves acknowledged that the school “learned some price point lessons” in selling this year’s post-season.

Ticket prices were pulled back about $5 per section, and multi-round buyers were given a break. Playoff football or not, Eastern has been peddling games in cold weather against unfamiliar opponents that “can be head-scratching for some people,” Chaves said.

Just as FBS lumps together football corporations with 100,000-seat stadiums and the likes of rural Washington State, the FCS mix might be even more disparate. Appalachian State averaged more than 26,000 at the gate this year; Central Connecticut’s cozy field seats 2,300.

If the notion persists that Eastern’s constituency is uninspiring by Big Sky Conference standards, it’s mostly a perspective skewed by the Montana schools, both of which draw twice what any other league team does, owing not just to outsized devotion but a lack of FBS competition in their area. EWU’s season average – 8,156 – is sixth in the Sky and 53rd nationally among 135 schools.

In any case, Chaves noted that “we’re getting to a place where it makes sense that we talk about what’s next for that stadium.”

It’s already being talked about: the “Gateway” project that would add a structure on the east side of Roos with both commercial and athletic space – and could bump stadium capacity to as much as 18,000.

And that’s a whole different ballpark from what Eastern’s been playing in. Whether there’s an audience to fill it is a worthy debate.

But it’s interesting that Eastern is forward-looking enough to imagine the atmosphere and experience it wants to generate on its campus, and how best to leverage football to do it. You may recall a run of success at Wazzu a decade ago that the school failed to capitalize on, whether by enhancing facilities or vigorously wooing a bigger audience or simply holding on to what it had.

A comparison that may be more than mildly persuasive.


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