Florida International U

Attendance-challenged FIU hampered further by noon kickoffs

FIU defensive tackle Marques Cheeks celebrates a victory over UTEP at FIU Stadium on Oct. 10, 2015 in Miami.
FIU defensive tackle Marques Cheeks celebrates a victory over UTEP at FIU Stadium on Oct. 10, 2015 in Miami. For the Miami Herald

Saturday’s FIU home game against Charlotte will get shown in 67 television markets around the country by American Sports Network, a group of stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting.

Blame ASN’s noon kickoff demand why there might be 67 tailgaters outside FIU Stadium before the game and maybe 367 fans inside at kickoff. It’s a stark example of the trade FIU and the rest of Conference USA makes: taking a hit at the gate and concessions for national TV.

That’s especially true in South Florida, which doesn’t do early well. FIU went five years between early afternoon starts before two American Sports Network-ordered ones in 2014. FIU didn’t make the NCAA’s FBS mandated average (15,000).

FIU’s players and coaches say there’s still a home-field advantage.

“We’re playing where we sweat at every day,” FIU senior defensive end Michael Wakefield said. “Playing with our brothers. That’s all we need.”

FIU coach Ron Turner said, “Just the routine of being at home and everything else. Our guys get pumped up to be here, whether there’s a thousand people or 20,000 or whatever.”

Also, the same South Florida high noon heat that keeps many fans at home can erode a visiting team. That shouldn’t matter Saturday as FIU faces a third-year program and needs a win to boost its bowl hopes. It didn’t matter when the Panthers squashed UTEP 52-12 on Oct. 10.

That game presented the rare sight of an athletic director looking glum with his team leading 21-0 after one quarter. FIU’s Pete Garcia saw a crowd maybe a fifth of the official paid number of 13,799.

A half hour before last year’s Nov. 1 noon game against Rice saw 21 tailgaters in the usually packed tailgate fields. Not 21 cars — 21 people. When FIU played at Middle Tennessee State this year, the game took place in the Central time zone. That meant an 11 a.m. local start. The official attendance, 13,227, was Middle’s lowest of the year.

Middle Tennessee athletic director Chris Massaro said, “You don’t want a steady diet of 11 a.m., but if it’s once or twice a year, you have to try to make the best of it.”

FIU gave away 20 $1,000 tuition prizes during the UTEP game to encourage student attendance. One of Middle corporate sponsors is McDonald’s, so for one 11 a.m. kickoff, the first 500 students received Sausage McMuffins with Egg.

And, Massaro said, some fans told him the 11 a.m. start against FIU meant they could get home in time for the major national games played at 2:30 or 6 p.m. Central time.

Get used to this. The conference and Sinclair, now in the second of a two-year deal, are negotiating their next TV rights agreement.

In response to a Herald e-mail asking how much money the conference and each team received in the deal with American Sports Network, a Conference USA spokesman e-mailed: “We do not release any financials regarding television contracts.”

FIU sophomore quarterback Alex McGough said, “I don’t worry about how many people are in the stands. As long as my mom’s there.”

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal