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As Tennessee football burns, Neyland stays nearly full

Photo: UTSports.com

It has been said that disgruntled fans voice their displeasure by staying home. The surest way to bring about a coaching change, the theory goes, is to leave seats empty on gameday.

Not only are empty seats bad for a school’s public image — particularly in this era where every game is televised — but they impact the bottom line. That’s reflected in season ticket sales, in single-game ticket sales, and also inside the stadium on Saturdays, where $5 Hebrew National hot dogs and $6 liters of water add up quickly.

Yet, in what appears to be Butch Jones’ defining season, attendance at Tennessee games remains relatively high. Through four home games in 2017, the average attendance at Neyland Stadium has been 98,725. That includes more than 99,000 for the home-opener against FCS foe Indiana State, and 102,455 for Georgia. There were more than 95,000 there for a noon kickoff against lowly UMass on a steamy late September afternoon, and more than 98,000 for Saturday’s noon kickoff against South Carolina, even after the 41-0 beatdown at the hands of Georgia.

Were there really that many inside Neyland Stadium? You can be the judge. Schools are notorious for over-stating attendance totals at sporting events. Radio host and writer Jimmy Hyams estimated Saturday’s attendance to be 90,000. By the time the game was underway and all butts were in seats, however, it was probably higher than that.

Contrast Tennessee’s 2017 attendance with the folks who were showing up for Derek Dooley’s final season in 2012. Even after a dominating win over N.C. State in Atlanta to kickoff that season, only 87,000 showed up for the home opener against Georgia State. The Florida game — a 37-20 loss — was a sellout, followed by a paltry 81,000 for Akron’s visit the following week.

Through the Vols’ first four home games in 2012, the average attendance was just 93,612 — down more than 5,000 per game from this year, and that included games against both Florida and Alabama. Tennessee did not draw 90,000 or more for any game in 2012 that didn’t include the Gators or the Tide.

It’s been said that Tennessee fans are more upset with Butch Jones this season than they were with Derek Dooley back in 2012. That may very well be true, but it isn’t manifesting itself in gameday attendance totals. At least not yet. Attendance isn’t as high as it was last year — when only FCS opponent Tennessee Tech drew fewer than 100,000 to Neyland (98,343), and attendance topped 101,000 even for the season’s final two home games against Kentucky and Missouri after the Vols had been eliminated from the SEC East race. But it’s still much higher than it was in 2012.

That’s likely to change, of course. Tennessee travels to Tuscaloosa this weekend, and will go to Lexington next weekend. By the time the Vols return home to face Southern Miss on Nov. 4, attendance is very likely to have slipped into the low 80,000s.

So far, though, Tennessee’s bottom line doesn’t appear to be suffering from the Vols’ performance on the field.

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