On Aug. 30, 2008, Scott Stadium was filled to the brim with 64,947 fans — well beyond the venue’s official capacity of 61,500 — for a showdown against a highly ranked USC team. Virginia will not be remembered for its performance on the field, losing 52-7, but, to this day, the matchup sits atop the record books as the highest attended game in Scott Stadium history.
Since then, attendance has topped 60,000 only once — a 2011 contest against in-state rival Virginia Tech — and that 2008 season marked the last time the Cavaliers have drawn in a season average of over 50,000 fans. In fact, attendance was already trending downward by the time USC visited Charlottesville. Between 2003 and 2005, attendance remarkably averaged over 60,000 fans. However, that number gradually declined for more than a decade until bottoming out in 2017, Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s second season at the helm, at 39,298 fans per contest. Although attendance this season is undoubtedly impacted by lingering hesitation about COVID-19, the average of 40,409 represents only a marginal improvement.
There are several factors that play into this sustained dropoff, the most obvious being success on the field. In the six seasons from 2002 to 2007, Virginia won at least seven games on five occasions, whereas the team would reach that level of success only once in the next 10 years. Importantly, consistent success is crucial to consistent attendance — high performance must be sustained over several years in order to see the benefits in the stands. A prime example of this is the Cavaliers’ 2011 season in which they went 8-5 to go along with an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against traditional powerhouse Auburn. Attendance ticked up slightly that year to almost 48,000 from closer to 45,000 the previous year, but it was not enough to slow the overriding decline in turnout.
Virginia started to see the impact of winning in 2019 — the program’s first nine-win season since 2007. Scott Stadium enjoyed a 21 percent increase in attendance from the previous year, as the Cavaliers went undefeated at home and picked up their first victory over Virginia Tech in 16 years. The 57,826 fans that showed up to Virginia’s matchup against Florida State were by far the highest of Mendenhall’s tenure in Charlottesville. However, the combination of COVID-19 and an underwhelming performance in 2020 put an abrupt halt to the recent progress and now forces Mendenhall and his staff to climb over yet another set of hurdles to fill up Scott Stadium.
“We're trying hard to have elite football at U.Va. and have it be an invigorating factor in the community,” Mendenhall said. “Winning really helps. But we have a saying here, that it's not only what we do, it's how we do it. I hope there is an acknowledgment [of that], and we're really trying to do it with really good students and really good people and trying to give back.”
Another key ingredient in driving attendance is the opponent. This has a clear game-to-game impact on the number of fans that show up to Scott Stadium, as rivalry games and marquee matchups invariably bring in larger crowds. It is no coincidence that a game against then-No. 3 USC resulted in the stadium’s highest recorded attendance. Every two years when the Hokies travel to Charlottesville, attendance spikes. While consistently high-caliber ACC opponents are few and far between, the ability of Virginia to schedule marquee non-conference home matchups are critical to future growth in attendance. When No. 7 Notre Dame comes to town Saturday for a primetime matchup, fully expect the number of fans to far exceed this season’s previous high — 45,837 against Georgia Tech. While having compelling games on the schedule will not directly impact attendance at games against lesser opponents, it undoubtedly aids in building a general buzz and excitement associated with football games at Scott Stadium, drawing in additional fans.
“Right now [attendance] is still conditional on opponent, maybe more than we would want it to be,” Mendenhall said.
The game-to-game impact of opponent caliber goes hand in hand with kickoff times. Cavalier supporters have proven to be more willing to show out for late-afternoon or evening games than early-afternoon contests. For example, in 2019, attendance averaged 44,848 for games starting at 12:30 p.m. or earlier and 50,124 for matchups starting at 3:30 p.m. or later. This result may be due to fans, especially students, simply not wanting to start their days early or other midday obligations that could get in the way of attending a football game.
“Game time certainly matters,” Mendenhall said. “What's really clear to us, and I've done all the studies, the later we play the more people come. The earlier we play the fewer people come. Everyone has lives with kids playing soccer and basketball and they're shuttling and yard work, whatever else. But there is incremental growth with each movement in the later a game is. What's clear to me is that U.Va. prefers and supports evening games more than early morning or afternoon games.”
Perhaps the single most important factor that has influenced the decline in attendance over the last 15 years, though, is the increased availability of television.
“In some cases the only way to see some of the games 20 years ago was to show up at the stadium,” former Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “In the current environment every game is televised, and with mobile devices, fans don’t have to be at home to watch games.”
It has simply become much easier to follow the Cavaliers, and sports in general, without having to be physically present at games. Games have become increasingly available on the internet over time, and with the introduction of ACC Network in 2019, Virginia faithful can watch virtually any game they want. This gives the fans, especially the ones located outside of Charlottesville, more of an incentive to stay home.
“With fans having more access to games on television, streaming and other ways to consume games, we want to continue to be adaptable in our marketing efforts to meet fans where they are and create new opportunities to get new fans to Scott Stadium,” said Torrey Ball, associate athletic director for external operations.
Television access and the ability to watch games on the go will only grow in the future, but that does not mean it is impossible for Virginia to overcome this obstacle in increasing attendance. At its foundation, it is a matter of establishing a culture in and around Charlottesville that is excited for football, which is something Mendenhall has emphasized during his time with the Cavaliers.
“Even with the increase in the number of televised games I think attendance can grow,” Littlepage said. “Attractive games, an energetic game atmosphere, and fans making attendance their game-day priority all can help increase average attendance.”
Mendenhall and his staff are certainly moving in the right direction, and with junior Brennan Armstrong being one of the most exciting quarterbacks in college football in 2021, fans in attendance are experiencing high-end entertainment. The Cavalier faithful are likely to show out in full force Saturday night for a showdown against Notre Dame in what will hopefully serve as an indication of the progress made by the Virginia football program in attracting fans.
“[With] the game day enhancements that our administration is working on, I just think there is this beginning,” Mendenhall said. “We're not there yet. This beginning of, what could this be? I think we're all seeing maybe the next tier of what it could be.”