On a home football Saturday, Beaver Stadium seats fill and cars and RVs line the lawns and parking lots surrounding.
Traffic grinds to a near halt on Atherton Street, Park Avenue and Interstate 99 as sleepy Happy Valley leapfrogs past Harrisburg, Erie and Allentown to become the third-largest city in Pennsylvania.
But Penn State officials say attendance is down. Well, some of them do.
When the board of trustees met in September, the committee on finance, business and capital planning heard a report from Athletic Director Sandy Barbour and Associate Athletic Director of Finance Rick Kaluza that said football numbers were down, with attendance at just 88 percent of the stadium’s capacity of 106,572.
But that isn’t a very clear picture, according to the athletic department, which this week was crowing over its increasing attendance. The day after the trustees meeting, Penn State hosted the University of Massachusetts for the second home game of the year. The announced crowd came in at 99,155, an increase of 6,300 over the second home game of 2013.
“Penn State has finished in the top five for home attendance nationally every season since 1991, even if we aren’t in a sold-out situation like we had been in some prior years,” spokesman Jeff Nelson said.
And that is the issue.
Penn State isn’t in a battle against other teams when it comes to attendance. For 23 years, the top of that chart has been a jostling of the Nittany Lions with Big Ten siblings Michigan and Ohio State, the current first- and second-place, respectively, and a rotating lineup of other schools rounding it out.
Right now, the third and fourth slots belong to Alabama and Texas, with Penn State’s average 2013 attendance of 96,587 coming in fifth.
Penn State was second from 2006-2009 and third in 2010.
But with numbers that topped out at 108,917 in 2007, Penn State is really competing against itself when it comes to attendance. Most other NCAA teams — and many Big Ten schools — aren’t even playing in the same league when it comes to filling a stadium.
According to the NCAA, the average attendance numbers for college football nationwide last year came in at 45,192, less than half of Penn State’s average. Those numbers have been struggling as well. Although 2013 numbers were up by 222 attendees, that followed declines in 2012, 2011 and 2009.
So why is Penn State talking about attendance?
“Our responsibility is to our student-athletes,” Assistant Athletic Director Jeff Garner said. “Providing that atmosphere provides motivation. They feel it in the fourth quarter. That’s the No. 1 reason to fill Beaver Stadium.”
But No. 2? That’s still money.
“That financial impact all ultimately goes back to the students,” he said. “Your butts in your seats and your clapping support student-athletes, but so do your tickets.”
After the 2013 season, the department did some polling on people who were stepping away from games. Despite the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the death of longtime coach Joe Paterno, the reason most gave for watching games at home instead of in a seat was financial. Garner said that mirrors what ticketholders have said about other venues around the country.
Penn State responded with options. They varied ticket prices so that it was more affordable to take in a game against Akron than the guaranteed draw of Ohio State. They created mini-packages of tickets to encourage someone who might usually buy tickets for just one or two games to try four.
“We don’t think that’s taking away from our season tickets,” Garner said. Instead, he thinks it might encourage people to go to more games, maybe building to new season ticketholders.
Some season tickets fell in price in 2014, namely those in the north upper deck.
Officials said all the measures worked. According to Nelson, 6,000 new season tickets were sold for this season, and more than 71,000 single game tickets were sold between mid-July and September. Another 1,200 partial season packages were sold. The average attendance per game this season is up 7,100 over last year.
Other Big Ten schools fall into two camps when talking about attendance. Michigan and Ohio State trumpet their impressive stats. Both have years of 100,000-plus attendance — Michigan with 255 straight games and Ohio State with 88.
Others, generally those with smaller stadiums, are quieter about it. Iowa’s capacity is 70,585, which means the average attendance last year of 67,125 is about 95 percent, higher than Penn State’s numbers even though there are about 30,000 fewer people in the seats.
“As for what we consider good, that is subjective, so there really isn’t an answer for that,” said James Allan, assistant director of athletic communications for the Hawkeyes.
And even a smaller stadium can be daunting when filled with fans for the other side.
“When High Point Solutions Stadium is packed, the entire atmosphere is electric. If you speak to any of the players, they always speak about the extra lift a spirited home crowd can provide,” said Jason Baum, chief communications officer for Rutgers.
Penn State can testify to that. The roar of the Scarlet Knights’ fan at the Sept. 13 game was imposing at the university’s inaugural Big Ten outing with a record-breaking crowd of 53,774, though the Nittany Lions did rally in the fourth quarter for the win.
Balancing financial need against the motivational aspects of a full stadium can be hard. Garner said they never want to price the games out of reach of the fans.
Linda Bush, of Philipsburg, bleeds pure blue and white. Her family considers the games a ritual of fall and, hopefully, winter.
“I would be OK with raising the price of tickets within reason,” she said. “I have been a season ticketholder for over 38 years so I will probably go to the games no matter what the trustees decide. If they keep the prices down they may see a sellout crowd more often.”
What she doesn’t want to see is parking prices go up any more.
“I have a yellow parking permit and I have to walk pretty far to get to the stadium. I think the parking fees now are a little high for a football game,” Bush said.
Garner said talks are currently underway about possible increases. A recommendation could be ready this month.
Beaver Stadium is empty Saturday as Penn State has a bye week. The next home game will be the white-out against Ohio State on Oct. 25. This week, Penn State announced it was sold out.