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David Ramsey: New Air Force athletic director must drain those oceans of empty seats

April 9, 2018 Updated: April 10, 2018 at 7:00 am
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A small crowd watches the Air Force/Fresno State game during the fourth quarter Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, at Falcon Stadium on the Air Force Academy. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Jim Knowlton came and went in a three-year flash without transforming the attendance crisis that drains Air Force athletics.

Small crowds were the norm when he was hired in 2015. Small crowds are the norm as he departs. He failed to sell Colorado Springs on Division I athletes who compete, usually in lonely conditions, on the edge of our city.

The new athletic director’s first priority is to connect with Colorado Springs, to persuade youthful newcomers to join the (mostly) older faithful at games, to transform the legions of city and county residents who ignore the Falcons into ticket purchasers who flock to games and make a lot of noise.

It is a crisis. In 2002, Air Force’s football team averaged 42,713 fans per game at Falcon Stadium. In 2017, the team averaged 29,154. In 2002, a basketball program nearing the end of decades of spectacular losing averaged 2,033 fans at Clune Arena. In 2017, a promising basketball team averaged 1,744 fans.

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Remember, these drops have taken place while population in the Springs jumped with an especially large leap in the northern outreaches of the city within a 10-minute (or less) drive of the academy’s north gate. In 2002, about 375,000 people lived in the Springs. In 2018, there are 100,000 more possible Air Force fans dwelling in the city.

In 2016, Knowlton sold a home football game to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, and we’re talking literally about the selling. The move infuriated coach Troy Calhoun. The move irritated the team’s most devoted fans. The move confounded me.

Knowlton gambled that the Falcons would play with the same poise and fire they usually display at their real home. He lost the gamble. The Falcons delivered one of their worst defensive efforts in program history and lost to New Mexico, 45-40. The Lobos gained 208 yards rushing . . . in the first quarter.

After the defeat, Knowlton refused to question his decision. And he offered one revealing reason behind his decision to move a “home” game 744 miles to central Dallas. Only 18,000 watched the game at the Cotton Bowl.

Knowlton shrugged.

“We have 22 (thousand) at our home games at Falcon Stadium," he said.

He was correct, of course. And at the all-too-common late night games, crowds – and temperatures – often drop into the teens. Small crowds inspired Knowlton’s sale of a home game.

The new athletic director must combat the sinking crowds. The new athletic director must find a way – and it won’t be easy – to start a fire of interest in a population that finds something else to do on game days.

The product is not the prime problem. Football coach Troy Calhoun is confusing and boring when he talks about his team, and the weird thing is he’s confusing and boring on purpose. He’s a smart guy who constantly outsmarts himself, never a good move.

But the man wins games. He’s 82-60 with two 10-win seasons in 11 years at the academy, and his option offense is entertaining and distinctive.

The 2018-2019 men’s basketball team could be the best of this decade, if the stars on a junior-to-be-dominated roster all return. The women’s basketball team is on the rise. The men’s soccer program is solid and filled with locally raised stars. The hockey team is a national force.

Momentum is required, and momentum has long been lost. If you believe you’ll be surrounded by loud and happy fans at a sporting event, you’re much more likely to buy a ticket.

Loud and happy explain the ever-packed Mile High Stadium for Bronco games. Many buying tickets have only the vaguest of interest in the team wearing orange, but everyone loves a good outdoor party. On cold days and warm days, during winning seasons and losing seasons, the big house on the edge of downtown Denver is packed.

Meanwhile, oceans of empty seats usually await ticket buyers at Air Force. Those oceans have been drowning interest for too long.

The new athletic director must show expertise for draining oceans of apathy.

 

 

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