It wasn’t even a week ago that Stanford Stadium’s attendance was, for a few hours, the laughingstock of the college football world. The stands weren’t even two-thirds full for the Pac-12 Championship Game, the biggest game to ever be played at the Cardinal’s relatively new grounds. Players pleaded, but between a 5 p.m. weekday start time, severe rain and general apathy among the local populace, the stadium sat relatively empty as Stanford clawed its way toward the Rose Bowl. Elsewhere, the Twitter-sphere wondered aloud how this could happen, while writers covering more rabid conferences pointed out, for instance, that "Bama and Georgia could play at 2 am on Tuesday and still sell out a neutral site game." And these critics weren’t wrong. Announced attendance was 31,622. That included UCLA fans. It didn’t matter that the student section was overflowing, or that the smaller crowd was still loud: the scarcity of butts in seats was embarrassing.
Then, just days later, Stanford took less than 30 hours to sell out its 31,000 seat allotment for the Rose Bowl. The demand is such that Senior Associate AD Earl Koberlein announced that "Stanford has arranged for more tickets from Rose Bowl and is continuing to sell" and Associate AD Kevin Blue assured anxious fans that "no ticket buyer will be turned away."
Selling more tickets in a day than to an entire conference championship game? Pulling out all the stops to make sure that any Stanford fan can attend?
Put the two situations together and it’s just…crazy, right?
Stanford’s fan base is virtually unique, and not just because its band’s drum major dresses like an astronaut. Whereas some schools enjoy both local and national support—hello, Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame—many are strong at home but don’t have much of a presence elsewhere. Virginia Tech is the prime example. And even some of the universities that are perceived to "travel well", like West Virginia, have had issues selling their BCS bowl allotments.
But a school like Stanford that struggles in its own market, but then can sellout its bowl tickets at the snap of its fingers? It’s backwards, and hence a rare sight. The only school I could find that comes close is Boise State—the Broncos were well represented at the Fiesta Bowl in 2010 after having problems filling their 34,000 seat stadium that season.
The Cardinal has its reasons for this situation. Unlike many major football schools that have a largely regional appeal, the Cardinal’s student body is imported from a variety of locales and alumni leave the nest after graduation, moving to all 50 states and hundreds of countries. Many head east, to New York and Washington, where it isn’t as easy to hop in a car and go to their alma mater’s game; even Los Angeles is six hours away. Stanford doesn’t have a large undergraduate population—nothing on the level of state schools—and can’t rely solely on its immediate community to fill its already pared-down stadium. Couple that with the Bay Area’s general indifference toward college football and you have a situation ripe for attendance issues. These problems were mitigated in recent years by the teams led by a certain Indianapolis Colt—Stanford was one of five schools in 2011 to increase attendance by more than 7,000 fans per game. But despite the Cardinal’s success over the past half-decade, it is still not far removed from the rock-bottom that was the mid-2000s. Curious as it might be to anyone closely following the program, there simply is not enough cache yet for local fans to trust that the team won’t regress, and uneasiness in the post-Luck era has dropped 2012 turnout below last year’s numbers. One would hope that this would be quickly solved by a Pac-12 Championship (bid) and a team that appears competitive on the national stage for years to come, but alas, here we are.
But while there are residual local issues, the disparate fan base rears its head during bowl season. Look at the history. In 2009, Stanford sold out its allotment at the Sun Bowl in El Paso. Like, the Texas border town El Paso. The game itself sold out before game day for the first time in its 76-year history and the Cardinal outsold its opponent, the far-closer football superpower Oklahoma. At the next year’s Orange Bowl in Miami—about as far from The Farm as one can get in the continental United States—Stanford pushed 10,000 tickets. It wasn’t a sellout, but it was 3,500 more than its opponent, Virginia Tech, was able to peddle, despite the Hokies’ (far) better home attendance and east coast setting. And last season, the Cardinal sold out its entire Fiesta Bowl allotment—17,500—in less than five days. The Rose Bowl is a continuation of and expansion on this trend.
In a number of ways, this year’s bowl game is a perfect storm for Stanford attendance. Outside of the national championship game, it’s the top destination (by far) for a Pac-12 team, particularly a Pac-12 team from California. Stanford has a dramatic number of alumni in Los Angeles, The Farm isn’t terribly far away and, for the fans that would require longer travel times, it’s over New Years, when many have the day off.
But still: the speed with which Cardinal fans purchased tickets rivals that of larger powers. (And Oregon, which travels as well as anyone, still has allotted seats available for the Fiesta Bowl.)
It was always a question with Stanford. Would its fans travel? The Cardinal lucked out considerably in both 2010 and 2011—by virtue of finishing the regular season in the top 4 of the BCS, they were guaranteed bids to BCS games. If, in either year, they finished even No. 5, they ran the very real and embarrassing risk of being left out despite fantastic one-loss seasons.
That question should be put to rest by now. The Cardinal’s attendance situation is uncommon and may leave the casual observer incredulous, but when the chips are down on the national stage, Stanford’s fans turn out.