The mission isn’t impossible, and it’s one the FIU athletic department’s marketing arm has no choice but to accept. But failure could put FIU on double not-so-secret probation with the NCAA as far as Football Bowl Subdivision football status.
One of the requirements for FBS football schools is 15,000 actual or paid attendance at home games over a two-season period. FIU went under in 2014 for the second time in three years, averaging 11,966. So the Panthers have to make a 15,000-per-game attendance nut this season with a five-game home schedule that contains:
▪ Four games on the same day the Hurricanes also play at home (the fifth is the same day the Hurricanes play Florida State).
▪ Two noon kickoffs in a region where college football crowds qualify as vampiric the way they evaporate in midday sun.
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▪ Only one game among the first five overall games, meaning little push from early season optimism.
▪ None against opponents with even South Florida cache, much less national cache: Football Championship Subdivision team North Carolina Central, UTEP, Old Dominion, FBS rookie Charlotte and Western Kentucky.
“There’s some unique challenges there,” FIU senior associate athletic director Bobby Staub admitted.
The consequences of too few friends aren’t immediately dire. According to the NCAA, FIU would receive a notice of noncompliance from the NCAA. Any further noncompliance with one of the criteria for FBS/Division I membership over the following 10 years would cause FIU to be placed on “restrictive membership.” That means no conference championship games or bowl games for a year.
If after a year on restricted membership, a school still doesn’t meet all the FBS/Division I requirements, it can remain Division I in everything except football. That might threaten FIU’s membership in Conference USA, which requires a football program that’s at the FBS level or transitioning to it.
FIU escaped this in 2013. After averaging 13,634 in 2012, FIU got visiting fan boosts during 2013 home games against UCF and Bethune-Cookman. Later, the athletic department put on a giveaway-packed, full-court press to get students out to the last two home games. That and a boost in “Internal” sales got them to 15,453 for the season.
Student attendance has been ebbing at most college-affiliated football games even among the full-house regulars such as the University of Michigan. Yet that’s the group Staub said FIU, which has the fourth-largest enrollment in the nation, must reach first.
“I really think our student-athletes are the best marketing tool we have,” Staub said. “They’ve got to engage their fellow students.”
Staub pointed to the job men’s basketball players, especially Tymell Murphy, did from 2012-14 in encouraging their peers in person and through social media to come to basketball games.
In that vain: “We’re going to have our team dressed up in jerseys and deliver posters and schedule cards on campus to try to humanize that connection a little bit,” Staub said. “A lot of people see them on the schedule poster and that’s it. But we’ve got some great kids.”
Also, FIU plans special days for various subsets of students — dorm residents, Greeks, non-Greek campus groups, etc.
An aggressive approach to the faculty and staff of 6,500 will focus on the home opener.
“It’s got to be more than just sending out an email,” Staub said. “We’ve got to actively engage them and almost personally invite them to come out and be a part of what we’re doing.”
He also hopes a greater presence by FIU coaches and players in the surrounding community makes the nearby residents more tractable.
“They might not be able to come to that UTEP game at 12 noon, but maybe they can come to that UNC-Central game at six o’clock,” Staub said.
“Before they become a season-ticket holder, I’ve got to get them out to a game. If I can’t get them to a game, I can’t expect them to buy season tickets.”