Pat Kraft has trouble sleeping some nights.
Hired as deputy athletic director in May, Kraft was brought in with a specific task: to engage the Temple fan base.
“I want our student body to be the loudest and most recognized in all of the country,” Kraft said. “I want to put Penn State’s student body to shame. I’ve seen it and it is so awesome, and so special. That’s what keeps me up.”
Despite the football team experiencing a steady rise in attendance during the past five seasons, when compared to other schools in the conference, the Owls remain at the bottom of the pack. Four weeks into the season and through two home games, Temple has the second lowest attendance in the American Athletic Conference with an average of 23,688. The only university with less average spectators so far is Southern Methodist, which has an enrollment nearly four times smaller than Temple.
Volleyball ranks last in the conference, with an average attendance of 225. The soccer teams have struggled the most, averaging a combined 181, the lowest in The American by far. Field hockey is the one bright spot of the non-revenue sports with an average attendance of 530, the best in the Big East Conference.
Temple remains in the midst of a transition back to a restructured version of the conference it was kicked out of nearly a decade ago due to poor attendance. Still, low attendance from the off-campus sports and the athletic department’s lack of specific plans for facility upgrades raise questions about whether the move to The American will result in the boost everyone hoped it would.
Although Pearson and McGonigle halls and on-campus tennis courts were recently renovated, officials said there are no specific projects for facilities in development, aside from new turf at Edberg-Olson Hall set to be installed next summer.
While the non-revenue sports struggle, Temple’s marketing schemes remain mostly focused on where there’s money to be made: the football team.
One way the university has tried to gain fan appeal is by having small-scale promotions through each aspect of game day. The program started a tradition of a “fly in,” where the band, cheerleaders and fans welcome the athletes as they walk into the stadium. Additionally, pyrotechnics are now launched as the team runs onto Lincoln Financial Field, and a new real-life owl named Stella attends games through all four quarters.
“We’re trying to do a lot of different things, and nothing happens right away,” Kraft said. “What we’re doing is building a foundation. I think, of course, everyone wants a sold out stadium. Everyone in the country does. But we also know what we’re up against, and we have to change people’s mindsets.”
Although attendance is expected to rise for the team’s next home game against Louisville, the numbers are still likely to remain low when stacked against other schools in The American.
“I think the biggest thing, to be honest, is to stay positive,” assistant athletic director for marketing and sales Scott Walcoff said. “This is a work in progress.”
Members of the athletics department partially attribute the lower attendance to the logistics of playing off-campus. Temple has five years left on its contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in using Lincoln Financial Field, and discussions have been ongoing among top brass regarding the potential for building a stadium on campus.
Still, according to Kraft, there are numerous obstacles to a plan of such a large a scale, including a need for donors and finding land available to build such a facility. With the addition of Morgan Hall, and an increased student population in recent years, the possibility remains appealing.
“The dynamic is changing drastically, and when you talk about a football stadium on campus, now you have more and more students living here,” Kraft said. “Now that atmosphere can come.”
Aside from a sample of promotions and marketing tactics, the Ambler-based teams remain mostly abandoned in regards to efforts in improving attendance figures.
The complex remains without simple amenities such as lights – something men’s soccer coach David MacWilliams has expressed a strong desire for. The teams are forced to play their home games exclusively during the afternoon, making it difficult for fans to attend due to work and school commitments.
“It definitely affects our student-athletes,” MacWilliams said.
“It’s just the reality of our location, where our home field is,” women’s soccer coach Seamus O’Connor said. “It’s just hard. Temple is a big soccer school in terms of that a lot of Temple students have played soccer and it’s one of those sports that has a huge following now among 18 to 26-year-olds. It’s just unfortunate.”
One problem regarding attendance at Ambler is the fact that it is located 16 miles from Main Campus.
“I feel for our student-athletes because I want them to have that experience, that feeling of having their friends at games,” Kraft said. “It’s tough. We continue to talk about how we can make it right. I wish I had the answer. I don’t.”
Another problem can be found in the fact that the university’s shuttle bus only runs five days a week, and returning service to Main Campus stops at 5:30 p.m. Because several games are scheduled for weekends, many students don’t have accessibility to attend an event even if they desire to. Possibilities of providing such transportation have been discussed, but there are no concrete plans to implement such a change.
“We’d love to be able to get students up there,” Walcoff said. “The key for us is to pick and choose the games we’re going to try to market and promote as much as we can.”
“In a perfect world, they’re up here playing on campus, but that’s nothing I can control at this point,” Walcoff added. “But that being said, that doesn’t mean we’re throwing in the towel.”
The Cherry Crusade, a student organization that promotes and supports Temple athletics, has not placed strong attention to games held at Ambler during past years. This fall, President Connor Page and other members are trying to change that.
“We’re making a huge push to have attendance up for Crusade members and non-Crusade members at all of the sports, whether they’re off-campus or on-campus,” Page said. “It’s very hard to make it to all of the games at Ambler because it’s so far away you have to take a bus.”
According to multiple sources, the school’s long-term goal is to move all teams onto Main Campus, although a potential timetable for achieving such a goal is unknown.
“I don’t think it’s unrealistic,” Kraft said. “That would be great. It would be awesome for our student-athletes. But once again, being in a city, we’re landlocked. Where do we put the sports? We look at it in every way. What are the different options? It’s very fluid, this process.”
Kraft, who earlier in his career significantly improved ticket sales at Indiana University and Loyola University Chicago, has emphasized Temple’s overall mindset of avoiding a “band-aid” approach in construction and marketing. Short-term fixes, he said, won’t be enough to solve the attendance problems the school currently faces.
According to Roberts, interim athletic director Kevin Clark has expressed a strong desire to upgrade athletic facilities and has been developing a five-year plan meant to improve attendance figures.
Until 2018, when such a plan would be completed, marketing has and will continue to be one of the most visible methods meant to boost attendance for all sports. This year, the “It Begins” campaign has been the most prominent of such tactics.
Additionally, new covers with similar graphics used for the “It Begins” advertisements have been installed at Lincoln Financial Field, utilizing hundreds of seats. Roberts, who oversees facilities and event management, said the new tarps have nothing to do with hiding empty seats, but are meant as a method of branding.
Covers or no covers, however, empty seats remain throughout all Temple sports. Kraft said he loves the challenge of filling them, as it’s the reason his department is here in the first place.
“I want to be able to provide that for Temple because it deserves it,” Kraft said. “I think we are in a great position as an institution and as an athletic department to do some really awesome things.”
“We expect nothing but greatness and we’re going to get that,” Kraft said. “I think it’s going to happen faster than anyone can imagine. But that’s what keeps me up at night. I literally go home, and say, ‘What can we do, what can we do?’ It’s really not healthy. But I believe in the process.”
Avery Maehrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.