What Ever Happened to El Paso’s Sports Fans?
Last night, I was enjoying UTEP's fourth win of the season, a convincing 31-17 win over Colorado State. All of a sudden, I looked up into the stands at the Sun Bowl, and I saw tens of thousands of empty seats. They announced a crowd of 31,000, but it looked more empty than that. For a homecoming game that featured a 3-3 Miners team fresh off a 44-7 road trouncing of Tulane, I was extremely disappointed. It made me start thinking when did El Paso sports fans become so disconnected with the teams in this city?
For the UTEP football program, I guess it started about 5 years ago. At that time, fans were pouring into the Sun Bowl to watch head coach Mike Price and his Miners team. UTEP had just finished its second consecutive 8-win season and Price was the most popular sports figure in El Paso. UTEP had never hired a head coach with his pedigree, and the Miners were onn their way up. However, his teams continued to stall every season and disappoint their eager fans. Gradually, the crowds also started to shrink each home game from over 45,000 in 2006 to 31,000 in 2011.
I asked UTEP Athletic Director Bob Stull about the great fan debate, and he said there is only one way to get the El Paso sports fans back in the Sun Bowl....winning! But wait; UTEP started out last season by winning five of their first six games, and they actually lost fans for every home game. How is that posssible since winning is the most important thing? Miner fans were not convinced their team's record was legitimate and expected their first half success to be short-lived. UTEP lived up to that prediction and lost six of their final seven games. "I told you so," those same fans said.
However, this problem does not just involve the UTEP football team. When Stull hired Tim Floyd to take over the men's basketball program last spring, fans were thrilled that Don Haskins' longtime assistant and favorite son was back home. Floyd even said how he was going to bring Miner basketball back to the glory years of the 1980s when it was the toughest ticket in town. Even with a veteran team that was near the top of the standings in Conference USA, the Miners only averaged only 8,959 fans per home game. The season before, UTEP averaged 8,697 fans at the Don Haskins Center. So, the difference between Tony Barbee, who was disconnected from the El Paso community and Tim Floyd, an all-time fan favorite was an average of 262 fans per home game?
That is hard to believe, unless you examine the make-up of El Paso. Do not forget that declining attendance also was to blame for the sale of the El Paso Diablos to Springfield and the loss of affiliated baseball. When I spoke with Texas League President Tom Kayser a few months back about the chances of El Paso ever getting another affiliated team, he expressed his doubts because attendance at Cohen Stadium was so low those last few years. The loss of the El Paso Buzzards and failed arena league football teams are two more examples of El Paso's lack of commitment to support sports teams.
Many of the UTEP sports fans that were here in the 1980s and 1990s have either moved away or died off. El Paso in 2011 has a different community makeup, and many of these people are not as familiar with the UTEP sports tradition. They need to be targeted by an aggresive marketing campaign to try out UTEP football and men's basketball for the first time. Otherwise, UTEP will need to get used to 30,000 fans (60% capacity) for football and 9,000 fans (75% capacity) for men's baskeball.