University of Montana fans are known for being loyal and passionate. Now they’re recession-proof.
Despite difficult economic times and living two time zones away, Grizzlies supporters will be traveling en masse to Chattanooga for Friday night’s Division I football championship game against Richmond. Montana is making its fourth trip to Finley Stadium this decade and may bring 3,000 fans for the first time.
“It’s been mind-boggling since we qualified to go back to Chattanooga to see the interest we have in all the charter flights,” Montana athletic director Jim O’Day said Monday. “We can’t keep up with people, and some of these charters are charging $1,500 to $1,800 just to get down there for a couple of days. That’s a lot of money for the Christmas season. The last time we went in 2004, I think it was about $850.
“Our fans are unique. They travel long distances to watch their Grizzlies play.”
They follow a winner, as Montana’s 105 victories since 2000 are more than any other Division I team, topping the Oklahoma Sooners by three.
Montana ticket manager Celine Fisher might be the busiest person in Missoula since the Grizzlies knocked off top-ranked James Madison last Friday in Harrisonburg, Va. There were 420 Grizzlies fans who made the 2,276-mile trek for the semifinal stunner, and this week’s journey is 2,057 miles.
“I’m surprised at the response with the state of the economy,” Fisher said. “I guess with Griz fans, this is what they like to spend their money on. There are a bunch of blinking lights on the phones today, and we’re supposed to be bringing in a couple of extra people to help.”
Said Griz coach Bobby Hauck: “I think our fans were a lot more confident last week than we were, because a lot of them didn’t go because they were waiting for this week. Everybody who can swing it will be there, I guarantee it.”
As of Monday afternoon, Montana had sold 2,438 tickets.
Montana’s average home attendance of 23,923 this season ranked second to Appalachian State (25,161) among FCS schools. UTC, by comparison, had an announced home average of 5,748.
Though Montana’s economy hasn’t made headlines like Michigan’s auto industry or Arizona’s home values, it has felt the crunch. O’Day said the state’s timber and tourism industries are suffering and that the brief upswing in oil and gas demand has been erased.
“The really big thing is the timber and the number of plants that have closed down around here or are having shutdowns,” he said. “It seems like Montana is a couple of months to a year behind the rest of the country, but there are a number of people around here without work.”
Montana football was not expected to provide this kind of outlet for excitement. The Grizzlies lost 14 starters from last year’s team that went 11-0 before getting bounced by Wofford in the first round of the playoffs.
An 8-4 season would have been considered great, according to O’Day, yet Montana is 14-1 after extending its record for consecutive seasons in the playoffs to 16.
“So many people have realized just how special it is to get a chance to go to this championship game,” he said. “The feel reminds me very much of 1995, when we played in it for the first time in Huntington, West Virginia. This was so unexpected for people that it’s got them more excited than they’ve ever been.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...