By Jack Chavez
Early in the fourth quarter of the Maryland Terrapins’ homecoming evening matchup against the Michigan State Spartans, the home team was down by three and driving. Sophomore running back Ty Johnson had just rattled off consecutive rushes of 44 and 18 yards to put the Terps at the Spartans’ 3-yard line. The Terps were in perfect position to snatch the lead late in the game. It was a pivotal moment during a primetime game against an opponent with a marquee name, and the crowd was loud and engaged—at least those who were there.
The first dozen or so rows along the field were mostly filled, with some stretches of empty seats visible behind them. But if you looked up a little higher—to the upper deck—the sight was bleak: entire columns of rows along either end completely bare. Empty silver benches, some stretching from end zone to midfield, clearly outnumbered the few clusters of spectators sporadically dispersed across the upper deck.
Two plays later, senior running back Kenneth Goins Jr. punched the ball into the end zone. The Terps would go on to win 28-17 in front of a paid crowd of 41,235—though far fewer than that actually stuck around to see the conclusion. Maryland Stadium, it’s worth noting, seats 51,802 people.
The Terps stand at 5-5 this season and are in excellent shape to secure a bowl game. They’re playing meaningful football late in the season and have two major metropolitan areas to draw from, so where is everybody?
“It’s not a promotion thing, it’s not like minor league baseball where you’re doing certain things to bring fans out. I think winning is it, if you’re recruiting big time players,” Baltimore-area radio talk show host Jeremy Conn said. “Look at the University of Miami when they were on top. Florida is a hotbed as far as finding college football players. Maryland needs to start keeping a lot of their great players at home. Don’t let Penn State steal them. Don’t let Virginia Tech come in and take some of your local players, which they’ve taken a ton.”
Conn, who co-hosts The Scott Garceau Show on 105.7 The Fan, said he doesn’t know many football season ticket holders in the Baltimore area. The Terps fans he encounters more often follow the basketball program than the football program.
“It’s easier said than done in this town, especially for college football,” he said. “You have the Ravens, you have the Orioles, and you have college basketball. Maryland—anyone can say what they want—it’s a college basketball school.”
In the Washington market, the sentiment sounds the same.
“It comes down to winning games,” said John McGinnis, who graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt and attended Maryland in the early 2000’s. “It’s ironic that they fired Ralph Friedgen and brought in Randy Edsall who was supposed to … raise more money for the program, but [he] ended up killing attendance with his on-field results.”
Attendance woes haven’t always been an issue for the Terps in the 21st century. Following a decade of mediocrity in the 1990’s, the 2001 season saw the Terps capture the Atlantic Coast Conference title and make an appearance in the Orange Bowl. That season, the school reported that the Terps recorded the second largest average attendance jump for a Division I-A program.
“Excitement was starting to build around the program at the end of the Ron Vanderlinden era and the start of the Friedgen era,” McGinnis said. “The drop off seemed to start around the time Joel Statham was the most viable option we had at quarterback, and never really fully recovered.”
McGinnis, who jokes that he was “born in a Frank Reich jersey,” thinks consistently turning in seasons that end with bowl games will bring back the fans.
“You can’t overstate the value of a winning program,” he said. “Look at local rivals like West Virginia or Penn State. They’re not playing for the [College Football Playoff], just second-tier bowl games. When it comes to attendance, you really can’t overstate the value of winning 8-10 games a season.”
The Big Ten often has several teams in the AP Top 25. The Terps can expect a challenging conference schedule every year, which makes the path to bowl eligibility an annual challenge. But DJ Durkin’s team only needs one more victory to get there this year, his inaugural season. Getting there, and following this season up with shrewd recruiting, would be a big step in the right direction.