At Maryland, sagging football attendance is an unwelcome trend that everyone — coaches, players and school officials — can see but nobody has fixed. Through five home games this season, the stadium has hosted an average of 21,226 spectators. That count, which Maryland provided to The Washington Post, includes ancillary attendees, such as staff, media and band members. Announced attendance, the metric publicly available, inflates the estimated crowd size because it includes distributed tickets that go unused.
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This fall, Maryland’s attendance peaked with an actual crowd of 26,276 (36,204 was the announced attendance) against Purdue. Even then, a stadium that holds close to 52,000 was barely half-full. The Terps may top that mark Saturday, a credit to traveling Ohio State fans. When Maryland faces Rutgers two days after Thanksgiving, the usual scene will probably reappear. Tickets for that game are available for $3.
Maryland’s attendance woes have persisted for much of the past decade as the school jumped from the ACC to the Big Ten in 2014 and the Terps struggled on the field. Photos of vacant stands circulate online, reaching recruits and handing opposing fan bases an opportunity to mock, and they advertise the revenue hit Maryland takes each time it can’t fill its seats.
Maryland’s average announced attendance of 31,920 ranks 66th among 133 Football Bowl Subdivision schools and places the program on a tier with Boise State, Appalachian State, Navy and Stanford. The Terrapins have the second-worst mark in the Big Ten, behind only Northwestern. A chasm exists between Maryland and the powers it is chasing — evident during each road game played in front of a raucous opposing crowd.
The Terps’ smallest home crowd of the season — 17,293 people in the stands when Michigan State visited — was on a rainy day in College Park. Meanwhile, Penn State fans, armored with ponchos, packed Beaver Stadium last weekend in the rain when the Nittany Lions dismantled Maryland. After the game, a reporter asked defensive end Chop Robinson, who transferred from Maryland, how many fans would fill College Park’s stadium on a gloomy day in November, and he said, “Not a lot.” When pressed for an estimate, Robinson said, “Less than 10,000.”
Maryland’s campus sits inside the Beltway, and the stadium is fewer than 10 miles from the US Capitol. The Terps’ program sells its location to recruits as a gateway to professional opportunities, but the transient nature of the city might not help breed loyal Maryland football fans. The millions who live here have plenty of entertainment options, sports and otherwise, stretching from DC to Baltimore.
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“The market is so unique,” said Jordan Looby, who oversees marketing strategy and fan experience at Maryland. “There’s so much competition.”
The most comparable schools might be Georgia Tech (36,625 average announced attendance) in Atlanta, as well as Los Angeles-based programs Southern California (63,133) and UCLA (37,411), which are both in the top 20 of the College Football Playoff rankings.
The saturated market hurts Maryland’s efforts to improve attendance, but so has the team’s performance. Since the school fired Ralph Friedgen after the 2010 season, the Terps are 56-83. They haven’t won more than seven games in a season, and they have beaten just three ranked teams during that stretch — at No. 23 Texas in 2017, against No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field in 2018 and then at home in 2019 against No. 21 Syracuse, which flooded the rest of the season. All three victories came in September, and Maryland has suffered numerous blowouts against the Big Ten’s elite.
“I do believe that this area in particular likes winners,” said Scott Weitz, the president of the Terrapin Club, which has roughly 5,800 members.
Weitz, who graduated from Maryland in 1990, doesn’t think the Terps need years of improved results to attract a larger crowd. The problem, he said, is that “we really haven’t beaten a team we weren’t expecting to beat in a long time.”
The Terps have occasionally packed the stadium in College Park: The university added bleachers to meet student-ticket demand against Penn State in 2019. That game turned into a 59-0 rout. A similar buzz surrounded last season’s matchup with Iowa, and the Terps suffered another lopsided loss.
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Dramatic upsets happen every weekend in college football, but Maryland has yet to play spoiler against a ranked Big Ten foe. Those are the games that create memories — ones that infuse hope into conversations at tailgates and lure fans into the stadium in case that magic surfaces again.
“We’ve got to get rid of the narrative of big game equals Maryland didn’t win the game,” Weitz said.
If Maryland had upset Penn State on the road last weekend, Weitz suspects there would have been a jolt of enthusiasm heading into Saturday’s matchup against No. 2 Ohio State. Instead, the Terps lost 30-0, and the Buckeyes’ dominance threatens a similar result.
Coach Michael Locksley understands his team has to do its part to coax fans into the stands. He has a degree in marketing, and he coached on the staff when Maryland won an ACC championship in 2001.
Fans want Maryland to “close the gap between the top teams in our league,” Locksley said earlier this season. “Well, the challenge is, will our fans help me close the gap with creating an environment that makes it tough when people come in the Shell? … For us to have the type of program that can go out and recruit [top] players, we need to show that we have a community that really values what this program’s all about.”
Winning games would help Maryland fill the stands, but filling the stands may help Maryland win more. A raucous environment could compel fans to buy tickets so they can take part, but the only way to create that atmosphere is if they pack the stadium.
“It’s a little bit of a chicken or the egg,” Looby said.
Still, the marketing department works to reverse the trend. Maryland was previously “operating from below baseline” with an “antiquated” video board, Looby said. The Terps rectified that by unveiling an impressive replacement last year. A better sound system allows the school to fill lulls with captivating videos and clips that show off players’ personalities.
“We’re getting rid of all the excuses,” Weitz said.
Maryland has tried to reach new fans by partnering with a digital advertising agency and targeting campaigns at certain areas. When star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett scored against Michigan State, Maryland launched an email campaign with discounted tickets for people in Jarrett’s native Prince George’s County. The staff has similar campaigns prepared for other local players.
Maryland’s athletic department crafts these marketing efforts, imagines ways to enhance the fan experience and works through the inexact science of ticket pricing. But then Maryland’s game each Saturday determines the difficulty of the school’s stadium-filling endeavor because lackluster performances probably will lead to another day with empty stands.
“It’s not about price,” Weitz said. “I don’t think it’s about [being] hard to get here. I don’t think it’s about traffic. There has to be a demand, and the way you get demand is to win games.”