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Despite Winning Tradition, UM Football Still Not a Draw

September 11, 2007 By Matt Meltzer in Miami: Local News

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If you know anything about Miami, and the hotbed of sports fanaticism that it is, it should not surprise anyone that a school with five national football championships in the past twenty-five years could barely fill half their stadium. That a team only three years removed from a BCS bowl appearance has a sizable percentage of their student body who would rather spend a sunny Saturday afternoon studying indoors than going to a football game. Such is the case in a town where sports are about the ninth thing on most people’s conversation list, right behind whether or not Hugo Chavez has a cold.

BUT I BET YOU THEY’LL SELL OUT FOR THE PARTY AFTER CASTRO DIES

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The Hurricanes opened their 2007 season against Marshall with a 31-3 victory in front of a robust 39,830 fans, barely over half the capacity of the Miami Orange Bowl. Though few would argue that Miami’s football program has fallen off in recent years, not attaining any sort of national prominence for anything other than an on-field brawl since 2003, empty seats at the OB have long been the exception rather than the rule. A losing record may not help the Hurricanes draw fans, but even when they were winning national championships it was never difficult to buy tickets for far below face value from people on the street.

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According to NCAA statistics, since 1998 the University of Miami has never ranked higher than 21st in Division 1-A football attendance, despite being ranked in the top 25 for their performance in each of those years and winning a national championship.  Only three seasons in that span have seen the school average over 50,000 fans per game, all the while compiling the third-highest winning percentage in college football. In a stadium that holds over 73,000 people, the school’s average attendance ranks 38th.  So if fans of teams who don’t win as much show more support, why is UM so unpopular?

THE ORANGE BOWL: A TRUE MIAMI EXPERIENCE

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Part of the blame may lie with their stadium. Despite being steeped in history and tradition, the Orange Bowl is regarded by many as a sports catastrophe waiting to happen. Support beams are rusted, foundations are shoddy, and any fan who has been to one of the few crowded games in the past ten years can tell you that the stadium shakes when large crowds start jumping up and down. Structural issues aside, the Orange Bowl is also located in one of the less-desirable sections of Miami known as Little Havana. Fans who drive to the game are routinely forced to haggle in a variety of languages for parking spaces on the front lawns of local residents, only to come out and find several other cars parked in front them impeding their exit. Those who do not drive must take the seldom-used Metrorail and then transfer to a city bus that is often less efficient than walking from the station. All of this through a neighborhood not noted for its commitment to public safety.

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Even if fans are willing to brave the rough streets of Little Havana and the rusting, rotting Orange Bowl, they are greeted by a typically late-arriving Miami crowd that rarely fills the stadium.  Many students do not feel that making the six-and-a half-mile journey to see their Hurricanes is worth it.

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When you’re a freshman, you had to take the Metro to the game,” says Lindsay Kennedy, a senior from Virginia Beach, Va. who now manages to make it out for every home game. “It was so hot and so crowded, I only did it once. It took an hour to get there.”

WHEN TOU PAY 33 GRAND A YEAR, YOU HAVE LESS TO SPEND ON FOOTBALL TICKETS

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Despite the logistical difficulties that face the student body, their lack of attendance may not be the underlying issue. At a school whose total enrollment is just under 14,000, every student is guaranteed entrance into the game by swiping their student ID cards. And while going to the game is not always “the thing to do”  not being able to get a ticket is never an excuse. Because Miami has fewer students than state schools, they are unable to draw as many fans as their larger public rivals. This also means fewer alumni.

“Your pool of people to draw from is way larger,” says Jason Seuc, a graduate student from St. Louis, Mo. who also went to UM as an undergraduate. “At a state school, you have five times the number of people graduating. That means you have five times the number of people willing to go to games, five times the number of people donating money.”

ONLY THE FOOLS STAY BEHIND

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Some point to the geographical makeup of the student body. According to the university, over half of the undergraduate population hails from states other than Florida, meaning that after graduation many decide to return home rather than staying around as alumni and going to football games. Unlike other private schools with big-time athletic teams like the University of Southern California - whose alumni tend to live in a similar geographic location to the school -Miami’s alumni are stuck in a perpetual diaspora.

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“Say you went to UF and you’re from West Palm Beach,” Seuc says, “you’ll make it up to Gainesville a couple of times a year for games. Or maybe even every week.  The makeup of UM alumni is not necessarily Miami or even Floridian. All my friends I went to undergrad with have left town. Nobody stays here.”

GOODBYE LITTLE HAVANA, HELLO MIDDLE-OF-NOWHERE

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Whether it is the fault of the city of Miami or the students who attend its most celebrated university, the lack of attendance - both by students and alumni - has been a concern of the school’s administration. Beginning next year, the Hurricanes will be moving out of their old home at the Orange Bowl and into Dolphin Stadium, located just off Florida’s Turnpike on the Dade-Broward County Line. While the newer facility boasts luxury suites, expensive video scoreboards and walls that do not threaten imminent collapse, it is 21 miles from UM’s main campus and offers no direct public transportation. So while the school has fixed one factor in its diminutive draws, it may have possibly created another. On the upside, though, in addition to the usual beer found at the OB, Dolphin Stadium will also feature hard liquor.

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“Less students are going to go next year,” Seuc predicts. “Say you’re really busy one weekend, and you just want to roll out of bed and go to the game. That’s not so much an option.”

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Time will tell whether the Hurricanes’ move to Dolphin Stadium will increase their lagging attendance. But with an alumni base spread throughout the country and a student body that has an easier time watching a game on TV than going to it, the University of Miami may never rival their public counterparts when it comes to drawing fans.  Their only hope may be to remain competitive on the field, despite what may happen in the stands.

Related Categories: Miami: Local News,

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer

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