MISSOULA — One of the biggest points of contention this season had nothing to do with Montana football’s on-the-field performance.
Rather, it had everything to do with just how many people came to watch or paid to be there.
This past season took a nose dive from 2016’s numbers. In Bob Stitt’s second season at the helm, Montana averaged 25,367 in announced attendance — an average of 1,715 more than 2017.
"The underlying dollar figures that are attached to that are important too and there's no doubt that we have slowly ticked down and that's a concern," Montana's athletic director Kent Haslam told 406mtsports.com "Truthfully, that certainly played into the decision to make a head coaching change. I'm not going to shy away from that."
Announced attendance vs. Gate attendance
As far as announced attendance, 2017 was dismally low from the start.
Montana’s season opener against Valparaiso had 23,160 for announced attendance. That’s the lowest season opener since 2003. Some 23,102 tickets were purchased for Bobby Hauck’s first game as UM's head coach 15 years ago.
That’s just the tip of 2017’s iceberg.
Capacity in Washington-Grizzly Stadium is 25,217. As far as tickets sold go, that was only exceeded once this season — against Eastern Washington.
By season’s end, Montana announced that 141,913 tickets were sold for an average of 23,652 per game. Even though Montana still led the FCS in average attendance, that’s the school's lowest average since 2007.
And the announced numbers were much higher than the number of tickets scanned at the gate.
Tickets sold and gate attendance figures are almost always different.
When you factor in season ticket holders, fair-weather fans, students, scalpers or any other reason why someone would have a ticket and not go, the "announced attendance" figure is always higher than actual attendance at the gate.
Montana's gate attendance from 2012-17, which was retrieved via public records request, illustrated what was visibly obvious — the crowd wasn't close to what it's been in the past.
No game in 2017 had more than 21,000 people in the stands and only twice were there more than 18,000 people in attendance. That hasn't happened since at least 2012.
Even before the season started, Haslam and Ryan Martin, Montana's associate athletic director who oversees the department's business operations, knew 2017 wasn't going to be good year for attendance.
"We knew 2017 had the potential to be a soft year because of the schedule that we put together," Haslam said, before addressing how Montana didn't have a true marquee game other than Eastern Washington.
Haslam added: "'17 was a year that we felt like could be a little bit of a soft attendance (year), but it was also set up in a way that we felt gave us the best chance to get into the playoffs ... And then that didn't happen."
Even though Haslam and Martin forecasted 2017 to be low, the turnout was worse than predicted.
Just 103,470 tickets were scanned in 2017 for an average of 17,245 people in the stands per game. That's more than a 38,000-person disparity between announced attendance and people who showed up.
"I don't think either of us expected that," Martin said of the difference in their preseason prediction.
Why does it matter?
Montana Athletics differs from just about every school in the FCS in how it brings in money. Roughly 20 percent of its $22 million operating budget comes from football ticket sales.
"Attendance is important and football attendance is very, very important," Haslam said. "There is no other school in our division that relies more on ticket revenue than us and certainly no one in the Big Sky Conference. We're double our nearest.
"There's an old saying, 'If you're going to put all your eggs in one basket, you better protect that basket.' That's true for football here. It was concerning."
In 2016, Montana brought in $5,962,990 in overall ticket sales (not just football). That outranks every other FCS school by a substantial margin.
Montana compares closer to San Diego State or Washington State in that regard. The Aztecs brought in $5.8 million and the Cougars had $5.5 million in ticket sales in 2016. The closest comparison within the league was North Dakota with $4.5 million.
Last season's numbers haven't come out yet, but when they do, Montana — even with its down year — will likely outpace the rest of the FCS.
Martin estimates Montana's calculations on football ticket sales were off by roughly $40,000 for 2017. Compared to a $22 million budget, that's a drop in the bucket, but it's easy for something like that to balloon.
"It is something we have to adjust off of," Martin said. "More importantly, just seeing the trends and reversing it so it doesn't continue. What we don't want to see is $40,000 this year, then $80, $120, $160."
Addressing future attendance
One of Montana's remedies for 2017's attendance shortfall has been years in the making — scheduling.
Typically, Montana has a high-profile opponent come to town during the nonconference slate, like North Dakota State back in 2015.
Montana was originally scheduled a marquee nonconference foe for 2017, but that fell apart.
McNeese State originally agreed to a deal back in 2009 for a home-and-home in 2016 and 2017 in a three-way deal with Appalachian State. When the Mountaineers moved up to the FBS, they canceled their part of the deal. Montana and McNeese State mutually agreed to end their part of the deal as well.
In the seasons to come, Montana has nonconference home games scheduled with Northern Iowa (2018), Missouri State (2020, 2021), Western Illinois (2021), South Dakota (2022) and North Dakota (2025).
"Whether that's South Dakota or North Dakota or Missouri State, Western Illinois, Northern Iowa — I feel good," Haslam said. "Those are games that our fans will be attracted to and drawn to."
The renewal period for existing season ticket holders is ongoing, so there aren't any statistics on that right now, but Haslam said he feels like the renewal rate will be strong and that feedback has been positive.
One reason Haslam feels good about the renewal rate is based on how many new season ticket holders have come into the fold since Hauck was announced as the next coach.
Montana ran a flash sale for new season ticket holders in December. Martin said more than 300 people bought season tickets through the flash sale over a five-day period.
"There is this misnomer out there that there aren't any season tickets available," Haslam said. "There are season tickets to be had. There's a lot of movement that happens within our season ticket base.
"Now, 50-yard line, 40-yard line? Yeah, those have been held by people for a lot of years, but there are season tickets to be had. They may not be exactly where you want them to be, but you can get season tickets."
When it comes to football, Haslam isn't just focused on attendance, but he's looking at the bigger picture too.
That bigger picture concerns all things related to what makes people come to games, or rather, what makes them stay home.
"Schedule plays a part of it, performance on the field, excitement around a coach — all those things," Haslam said. "(The) gameday atmosphere, we are constantly trying to figure out the best way to build on the reputation of our wonderful gameday atmosphere and make sure it doesn't get stale.
"Those are hard things to continue to do. I think people across the country are grappling with 'How do you battle getting people there as opposed to them sitting at home when it's cold at night and watching on TV.' TV plays a role in this. Everybody feels that every game should be televised. I'm sure that impacts the softness of our attendance too at times. Games are readily available now to watch.
"Keeps me up at night, no doubt about it."