Last season, when Cincinnati traveled to UCF, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit commented that the Bearcats weren’t used to the atmosphere in Orlando. Spectrum Stadium is unique to the AAC. It’s rowdy. It sells out. Players can feel the stadium shake in the locker room and in the tunnel.
Most stadiums are half full, and fans sit on their hands in the AAC. Plenty of stadiums are off campus and don’t pack an end with students. The Bounce House is a huge part of UCF’s success, going well before Scott Frost showed up.
The fans showed off early, forcing Cincinnati into two pre-snap penalties before the ball was even snapped.
That atmosphere is why UCF was able to host College Gameday. It makes UCF more exciting for recruits and fans. It makes the game day experience special.
Unfortunately, the rest of the conference has struggled with creating great atmospheres in recent seasons. Despite increased success, Memphis’ home attendance has gone down. In 2018, by 9.4 percent. On average, the Liberty Bowl had around 20,000 empty seats per home game.
That’s the reality of a good team in a city full of people. When a program hasn’t had the same success that Memphis has recently experienced, filling the stadium is even more difficult. Tulane, an AAC West dark horse, only announced a crowd of 16,631. Yulman Stadium didn’t look that crowded.
It’s even more difficult for a program like UConn, who lacks success to fill their stadium. It’s even harder for schools like UConn because their stadium isn’t on-campus. So for students, getting to East Hartford from Storrs isn’t worth the product is bad.
Besides smaller fanbases than Power 5 teams, many AAC teams need to deal with playing in off-campus stadiums. It’s harder for students to get to these games, there are more empty seats, it’s expensive to rent stadiums and less recruits want to play in empty Raymond James Stadium than a full Spectrum Stadium.
To help fill Raymond James Stadium, USF has taken to scheduling elite opponents in 2-1 series. For USF, there’s nothing wrong with this on the surface level. They need to sell tickets. Unlike UCF, who makes millions off of a single home game, USF isn’t making enough to keep up in the facilities arms race.
Unfortunately, USF filled Raymond James Stadium with Wisconsin fans in the lower bowl Friday night. The crowd had more red than green, and the noise levels bothered USF, as they were plagued by pre-snap penalties.
For AAC programs, this means that to make their atmospheres better, they need on-campus stadiums full of students. Rowdier atmospheres will only make recruits want to play at AAC programs more than they do now.
Change is in the air now. Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium was electric on Thursday night against UCLA. It helped the Bearcats win the game. It took an excellent season, but it’s starting to look like there’s someone else around to join UCF’s Spectrum Stadium.
ECU has an excellent fanbase, but nine wins in three seasons has quieted the crowd. An excellent hire, Mike Houston, should have the Pirates raising the ‘no quarter’ flag again soon. Houston, Tulane, and Memphis are good enough that they should have exciting atmospheres soon.
The conference is on its way, but it needs great atmospheres across the board, not just at the very top, if it really wants to be a Power 6 conference.