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Staff file photo / Since he was hired by UTC in August 2017, Mocs athletic director Mark Wharton has worked to find out what fans want when they attend the school's athletic events, but there is still much progress to be made in improving attendance.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Mark Wharton was out running errands a few days ago when a business owner noticed the "Power C" logo on Wharton's navy blue windbreaker and asked about his connection to UTC.

"I'm the athletic director," Wharton replied.

The store owner instantly remarked how excited he was about the future of Mocs football, how he hadn't felt as good about the program in a long, long time.

Asked Wharton, "So do you go to a lot of games?"

The owner replied, "No, I haven't been to one in years."

Said the third-year AD of that encounter, "That's what we've got to fix. We've got to find that secret sauce that puts fans in the stands."

Wharton believes the businessman is right to feel good about the future of UTC football and the rest of the athletic department. Despite the Mocs closing Rusty Wright's first season as head football coach with a 31-24 loss Saturday at Virginia Military Institute, they posted a winning record in Southern Conference play and have a good number of starters returning for next season, though senior quarterback Nick Tiano — a big reason for the team's surge down the stretch — won't be one of them due to his impending graduation.

As Wright has said on more than one occasion, "Our numbers are down, but we're going to solve that through recruiting. We're going to get better."

How to improve attendance for football games at Finley Stadium and for UTC athletic events at other venues is apparently another matter.

For instance, while many, Wharton included, believe the Mocs should play more Thursday night football games to avoid butting heads with the Southeastern Conference and the rest of the Power Five conference schools on Saturdays, the numbers haven't been that encouraging.

The 2018 season opener at Finley against Tennessee Tech was played on a Thursday night and drew an official crowd of 9,020. Able to schedule two Thursday night contests at Finley this year — the opener against Eastern Illinois and an Oct. 17 game against East Tennessee State University — Wharton saw 8,254 fans fill the stands for Eastern Illinois and but 7,124 show up for ETSU, which is supposed to be one of UTC's bigger rivals.

"It's disappointing compared to last year," he said. "But we're going to try and continue to play on Thursday night at least once a year."

Wharton's willing to try almost anything, and it's not without research. Since his arrival he has conducted surveys with season ticket holders in the revenue sports at both the middle and end of those team's seasons.

Those surveys have yielded concessions discounts for Mocs Club members, cheaper ticket prices — "The (football) ticket package was higher this year, but the cost per game was cheaper because we played one more home game," he explained — and alcohol being available in more (though not all) areas of Finley.

"And we had zero incidents" related to alcohol, Wharton said of this year's home football games.

some text Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC athletic director Mark Wharton and women's basketball coach Katie Burrows smile during a news conference introducing Burrows as the program's new leader in June 2018. Although working to put the right people in charge of Mocs sports teams is part of Wharton's job, so is improving the overall experience for athletes and fans.

Those surveys have also brought numerous complaints about the noise level at McKenzie Arena when music is played over the sound system at basketball games.

"We're getting a new sound system that's digital," Wharton said. "It balances the noise between the floor and the upper deck. We're doing the same thing at Finley."

As for next football season and beyond, Wharton said he doesn't intend to raise ticket prices. He even wants to look at "reducing ticket prices for students and finding a reserved parking place for students" that would hopefully lead to a better tailgating experience.

"We need to do more to get them to the stadium," he said of those future alums. "Do they want free T-shirts and lower concessions? We're looking at anything and everything."

You would think all of this would be enough to have citizens of the Scenic City take a second look at the UTC athletic program, which is boasting its best academic numbers ever, winning its share of games on the field and will soon finally begin construction on a much-needed football training facility connected to McKenzie that also will upgrade portions of the arena.

Even then, finding a bigger revenue stream for an athletic department that needs financial help across the board is getting tougher by the year, beginning with fewer options for those "guarantee" football games with Football Bowl Subdivision programs such as Tennessee, which paid UTC $500,000 this season for the joy of losing 45-0 to the Volunteers on Sept. 14 in Neyland Stadium.

"You look around, and I think Florida and Oklahoma are scheduled through the 2033 season with FBS opponents only," Wharton said. "I am concerned. It's getting harder and harder to schedule those games, and it's critical for our program to get one of those games each year because it's a revenue producer for us."

He does see some hope for his program regarding future games against the Vols — and the UTC men's basketball team will play UT on Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena — due to an understanding from those higher up the food chain in the UT system.

"They understand what this means to programs such as us, ETSU, Austin Peay, UT-Martin," Wharton said. "Tennessee does play Furman next season, but they seem to want to keep the money in state."

Of course, that doesn't solve the apparent lack of enthusiasm to attend Mocs football games at Finley Stadium or men's and women's basketball games at McKenzie Arena.

"We want to eliminate excuses for not coming to our games," Wharton said.

If recent history be the barometer, that might be the athletic department's unbeatable foe.

some text Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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