MANHATTAN — When Kansas State took the football field before a game against Baylor three weeks ago, Glenn Gronkowski expected to hear light applause from a partially filled Snyder Family Stadium.
The Wildcats had lost three of their first five games, they had suffered back-to-back defeats and they had been labeled heavy underdogs against the Bears. No way, Gronkowski assumed, would K-State fans flock to that game.
So you can imagine his surprise when he was greeted to the roar of a jam-packed stadium.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Gronkowski, a redshirt freshman fullback. “I looked up in the top right corner and thought, ‘This is crazy. I can’t believe it is sold out.’
“It gave me the chills. I was not really expecting that. I hope it stays like that. It gets us going. That first drive when Baylor had the ball was the loudest I have ever heard it. We were 2-3 and they were still behind us. It really is crazy.”
K-State narrowly lost, but football players encountered the same scene as they marched onto the field last week against West Virginia. They will see it once again on Saturday against Iowa State. Fans can still purchase standing room-only tickets and watch the game from the hill on the northeast side of the stadium, but assigned seats are long gone.
The Wildcats, despite an up-and-down season, expect to exceed capacity for every home game this year and to set school records for total attendance (384,654 in 2002) and average attendance (51,136 in 1999). K-State crammed more than 52,000 into a 50,000-seat stadium in its first five home games and is averaging 53,017 fans. It has also sold out its last 10 home games.
They are impressive numbers, regardless of circumstance. But they seem remarkable considering the Wildcats have a losing record and football attendance is down nationally.
Studies show that attendance dropped 3 percent in the season’s first month compared to the same point last year, and 6 percent compared to this point two years ago. Average attendance in this season’s first month was 45,596, down from nearly 50,000 in 2011. Some of that can be explained by rising ticket prices in a down economy and the rise of high-definitiion television.
With nearly every game available at home, many fans are choosing to watch games from the couch instead of the 50-yard line.
Before the season began, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said maintaining football attendance numbers would be difficult for every team in the conference. To help the cause, he allowed schools to start showing highlights of other games during timeouts and challenged athletic directors to create unique experiences at their stadiums.
K-State, it seems, was ready for the test. It is averaging 2,739 more fans than it did last season, edging out undefeated Baylor (2,681 more fans) for the largest increase in the Big 12.
“K-State fans are the best,” said Scott Garrett, K-State’s assistant athletic director for ticketing and fan strategies. “It’s been awesome. It has been great to see the place full. Hopefully we have developed a culture where that is now the expectation, and we can count on the stadium being sold out every week.”
Wildcat coach Bill Snyder thinks that expectation helps his players.
“They don’t look up and see empty seats. They know the people are here for them,” Snyder said. “They appreciate that a great deal. It makes a difference to them. They have great admiration for the fan support and for our student body and how they show up.”
A perfect storm of conditions made the big turnouts possible.
For starters, the Wildcats are coming off back-to-back seasons that ended in major bowl games. A 10-win season, followed by an 11-win campaign and a Big 12 championship, created new levels of excitement in the preseason. That led to a record number of season-ticket orders (43,000) and a fan base that was eager to attend games.
This is also K-State’s first season playing in a renovated stadium. The Wildcats finished construction on the $90-million West Stadium Center in the offseason and celebrated its completion with a rare Friday opener. Those who weren’t interested in the game were curious about the stadium. The renovations offer a record number of suites and club-level seats. They also allow fans to learn about K-State’s athletic history on the West concourse and to keep an eye on the game on hundreds of new televisions spread across the stadium.
Bramlage Coliseum is also now part of the equation, offering bathrooms and a place to cool down or warm up on gamedays. Even social media has become a Saturday staple. K-State shows tweets and pictures from fans on its video boards throughout games. And K-State shows highlights from other games after every quarter.
“I would put our gameday experience up against any other program in the country,” Garrett said. “In terms of value and total experience with everything that is going on around on Manhattan, you can’t beat what we provide.”
K-State players now want to be part of the equation. At 3-4, the Wildcats need a strong finish to reach bowl eligibility. But with three home games remaining, they are confident they can get there with the help of their fans.
“That means so much to me that fans won’t turn their back on us,” Sams said. “I mean, we were 2-4, that’s not a good look for any team. When we come out and see a sellout, that gives us added motivation. It amps us up. We are real excited to see the house is full.”
So excited that some players get chills.
Gronkowski won’t take that feeling for granted.
“It shows the family atmosphere we have here,” he said. “Now we have to give the fans what they deserve. They have been supporting us, they have been loud. We have got to give them what they deserve and win.”