We submitted a public records request to the Tampa Sports Authority for the actual attendance of every game USF Football has ever played, and here's what we found: USF is losing ground in terms of attendance and support, and 2013 saw the greatest padding of attendance numbers in team history.
The announced attendance by the TSA, which can be requested after each game, is the actual number of people that scanned a ticket (including students that used their ID back in the day) to enter either Tampa Stadium (1997) or Raymond James Stadium (1998-Present) to watch a USF Football game.
Here are the raw numbers we received from the TSA: USF Event Composite Recap Attendance
Our full spreadsheet putting both reported and actual attendance numbers side-by-side with per-season totals and percentages for each of the 108 home games in USF Football history is available here. USF Football Attendance
But we'll boil it down to a basic chart for you:
|Average TSA Actual Attendance||Average USF Announced Attendance||% of Actual vs. Announced|
A few caveats:
1. Every school lies about attendance. There's fudging everywhere, but the amount of extreme fudging lately is almost comical.
2. We're not breaking any NCAA rules. According to the 2012-13 NCAA Statistics' Policies & Guidelines: "Attendance figures for official box scores and/or NCAA reports can be calculated by turnstile count, tickets sold or estimates." It's just that our "estimates" are getting less and less credible.
3. The writer of this story has helped to make up attendance numbers for games at multiple schools (USF and Delaware State). If at a USF Baseball game in 2004 one team had two runs on five hits and one error in the bottom of the eighth inning, the attendance very likely could be 251. The attendance could be someone's birthday, or a player's batting average if they were on a hot streak. The press box as a group made it up. Basically every school does this for Olympic sports with lousy attendance. But obviously the standard is usually much different for revenue sports.
4. Due to the Bulls Club Priority Points program, actual attendance might even be worse than this. According to Bulls Club rules, season ticket holders that scan their ticket at football, men's basketball, and women's basketball receive 0.1 priority points for each ticket scanned. Each full priority point equates to $50 in annual unrestricted giving, so by just scanning your ticket at the entrance you'll get the equivalent of $5 worth of priority points. This is why I've seen many people scanning 8 tickets for two people actually crossing the turnstile. I don't think this is a huge factor, but it does happen and more than you might think.
* In terms of actual attendance, 2013 was the worst season USF has had since joining the Big East in 2005, with actual attendance in 2013 coming in a whopping 17.7% less than the other lowest season (2006) of the BCS Era.
* The average attendance for the 56 home games since joining the Big East has been 32,506. The 2013 average actual attendance was 20,379, or 62.7% of the average actual crowd since 2005.
* The five games with largest percentage difference between announced and actual attendance in history:
Davidson '97 (27,919 - 12,811, 45.89%)
Memphis '13 (30,831 - 14,795, 47.99%)
Charleston Southern '97 (25,361 - 12,226 48.21%)
Liberty '01 (21,056 - 10,288 48.86%)
SMU '13 (28,397 - 14,240 50.15%)
* The five games with the least percentage difference between announced and actual attendance in history:
Citadel '98 (32,598 - 31,452 96.48%)
Kentucky Wesleyan '97 (49,212 - 46,406 94.3%)
Louisville '03 (36,044 - 33,247 92.24%)
West Virginia '07 (67,012 - 61,664 92.02%)
C. Florida '05 (45,139 - 40,988 90.8%)
Notice that's five of the iconic games in USF history: the first-ever game at Raymond James Stadium, the first-ever game, the first C-USA game, the biggest game in team history at home after beating Auburn, and the first C. Florida game. So when things are going well, the spread between announced and actual is much smaller than usual.
* We straight up fibbed about the FSU game being a sellout in 2012. There were only 58,808 tickets that got scanned, but we said it was the biggest attendance in USF history at 69,383. We actually had more people walk through the door for our only other "sellout" vs. WVU in 2007 (61,664), but claimed less (67,012).
Otherwise, the numbers simply speak for themselves. Of course everyone knew USF has done this for a long time, so this shouldn't be a huge revelation, but the padding has reached pretty absurd levels. When you claim you had twice as many people in the stands as you actually did at consecutive home games... that's kind of being desperate to keep up appearances, no?
What's the big deal here? Look at what we were selling just over four years ago.
A program that started in a double-wide trailer a little more than a decade ago should not by rights be nationally recognized. But that’s what happened when USF added football to its slate of intercollegiate athletics over the objections of some who believed it was too ambitious. Today, the Bulls are ranked consistently in the Top 25, and the sky’s the limit.
Ignoring the part about us not actually ever finishing a season in the Top 25, do you feel like the sky is the limit for this program right now? What about this:
"This program has a sense of destiny about it - a faith that, despite the challenges of youth, it can and will achieve great things," said Woolard. "The Unstoppable Campaign represents an opportunity to totally transform the face of Bulls athletics, to build upon the unparalleled growth of the last decade and establish this program as an emerging power on the national athletics stage."
Have we built upon that growth? Have we established this program as an emerging power on the national athletics stage? All signs strongly point to no. And faking half your attendance at football games is just another key example showing how far the "emerging power" (or at least the team that believed it could, would, and should be there) has fallen.
The only positive? It has to get better. Because it can't get any worse.