This story was updated Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, at 10:13 p.m. with more information.
UTC football attendanceView 4 Photos
There have been two timeworn adages regarding University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football and increasing its attendance at Finley Stadium.
Produce a winner and provide more Thursday night games.
Were those just myths?
The Mocs are the last team undefeated in Southern Conference play entering the final weekend of October, and they've already played two Thursday night games at home. Yet their announced season attendance average of 7,952 is 800 below last year's 8,752, which was UTC's lowest attendance average in a decade.
Last Thursday night under gorgeous skies, UTC rallied past familiar foe East Tennessee State 16-13 behind freshman Ailym Ford's 200 rushing yards and Victor Ulmo's game-winning field goal, but the announced crowd was a season-low 7,124.
"I just think it's the Chattanooga market," Mike Davis, the Stadium Corp. board chairman, said Tuesday afternoon. "It's frustrating to sit there and look out and think, 'This is it?' It's great to go to Knoxville or Tuscaloosa or Athens, but we've got a team here. I have seen so much improvement this year from the players. How long has it been since we've seen a running back ask for more?
"I've seen an effort that I haven't seen in a while now, and that's encouraging as a fan, but we had a problem giving away tickets last Thursday night."
UTC is 4-3 overall and 3-0 in SoCon games under first-year coach Rusty Wright entering this week's trip to Wofford, with the Mocs scheduled to play for the fifth time in Finley Stadium next Saturday against Furman. Many Mocs fans for decades have wanted more games on Thursday nights, but the two Saturday games so far this season against James Madison and Western Carolina have drawn 1,053 more total fans than the Thursday contests against Eastern Illinois and ETSU.
The ETSU game was not up against any notable college football competition on television.
"People complain that it's a school night, but this is what we've been hollering about for years," Davis said. "I love Thursday night games, but this is a little frustrating. I know the university is trying."
Said Wright: "You fight this battle everywhere you go. I was a little disappointed. People missed a really good game."
Despite this season's results, which may or may not be a satisfactory sample size, Finley Stadium executive director Chris Thomas still would like more Thursday night games.
"I think they're cool," Thomas said. "I've already seen next year's schedule, and it's mostly Saturdays, which I was a little disappointed in. That first Thursday night we had this year with all the kids was just fantastic, but I think this is still a little bit of an experiment. If the conference as a whole did something to make it easier for the schools to do more Thursdays, I think they would be more successful.
"Right now, Friday is high school football, Saturday is the SEC and Sunday the NFL, and to get a smaller school that same coverage opportunity, you have to carve out a time when there is not as much competition. There are so many opportunities now for people to get their sports fix, but we're trying to get them to come down here."
Wright played at UTC and has returned to his alma mater following a two-year stint as inside linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator at Georgia State, which has the task of luring fans in a market that contains everything from the Atlanta Braves to Atlanta United to the Georgia Bulldogs right up Highway 316.
As for the success element, the Mocs are on pace for an eighth winning record in nine seasons, so perhaps it is a matter of not winning enough. UTC made three straight FCS playoff trips from 2014 to 2016, but even those seasons did not compare in attendance to 2010, when first-year coach Russ Huesman and former McCallie School quarterback B.J. Coleman provided a spark that resulted in an all-time high average of 12,699.
Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, two former SoCon programs that routinely traveled well and are now in the FBS, each played at Finley in 2010.
UTC has truckloads of company in trying to increase its crowds, with Tennessee's struggles in recent seasons and again this year having resulted in an average attendance of 88,471 through five games in Neyland Stadium. Should that number hold through remaining games against South Carolina, UAB and Vanderbilt, the Volunteers would have their lowest annual attendance since 1979, when Neyland's capacity was much less and the average was 85,357.
Tennessee had its highest annual attendance of 107,595 in 2000.
"I've watched Tennessee's games on TV, and I see a lot of empty seats where you didn't see empty seats," Davis said. "Everybody can have their opinion on what's causing that, but we've got a contender. When we had the FCS championship game (1997-2009), we had to give away tickets and couldn't, but then everybody started coming, and we packed the place out.
"If they could have a good showing at Wofford, I really hope that we could have a bunch of people here next Saturday. This team has an opportunity for the playoffs."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.