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If you rebuild it, they will shun? UCLA’s attendance hits new low under Chip Kelly

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly watches from the sideline during the first half against Bowling Green on Sept. 3 at the Rose Bowl. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

The late-morning sun was just starting its slow, steady climb over the old stadium.

A crowd that might not have filled Pauley Pavilion, much less the Rose Bowl, scattered in search of protection from the unrelenting glare.

Some fans found slivers of shade near the top of the bowl thanks to trees lining the outer rim of the stadium. Others clustered in seats underneath the Terry Donahue Pavilion, their own shadowy oasis.

Mercifully, there wasn’t much competition for choice spots.

Attendance, the scarlet “A” of the UCLA football program under coach Chip Kelly, continued a historic plunge Saturday during the Bruins’ season opener.

The announced crowd of 27,143 represented an all-time low for the team since moving to the Rose Bowl before the 1982 season. Explanations for the low turnout might have outnumbered fans.

It was too hot. Kickoff came before noon. Bowling Green wasn’t the most exciting opponent. Students weren’t in class, so they didn’t come.

Diehards didn’t much feel like showing up either, given the conditions.

“No one’s going to go sit out on a 104-degree day to see an average Bruin game against a team they’ve never heard of unless the Bruins are in the top 10 in the country,” said Todd Nathanson, who has held season tickets since 1998, the last time UCLA went on to play in the Rose Bowl game.

Nathanson, who did not attend the game because he was out of town, has seen plenty of sparse early season crowds. I suggested attendance wasn’t likely to swell unless UCLA went 5-0 before facing Utah in early October.

“As much as we complain about the location and the stadium and this and that,” Nathanson said, “if the team is winning, the fans show up. L.A’s a fickle town, we all know about that.”

Actually, the attendance reflects some consistency since Kelly’s arrival before the 2018 season. In both good seasons and bad, Bruins fans tend to stay home.

UCLA’s average home attendance last season, when the team briefly captured the nation’s attention with a riveting victory over Louisiana State and finished 8-4, was just 45,818, the second-lowest figure in its 40 seasons at the Rose Bowl.

And the lowest? That came in 2019, when the Bruins averaged 43,848 while going 4-8. It might seem hard to believe, but it wasn’t so long ago that UCLA set a school attendance record under coach Jim Mora, drawing an average of 76,650 in 2014.

UCLA plays Oregon during a game at the Rose Bowl.

UCLA plays Oregon during a game at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 11, 2014. (Doug Benck/Associated Press)

UCLA would not disclose the number of season tickets sold for 2022 or the renewal rate from 2021, a school spokesperson said, citing proprietary reasons. The school had disclosed that information for previous seasons as recently as 2019.

Stadium upgrades that include modern scoreboards, better student seating, a pregame DJ and expedited entry have not significantly swayed fans.

Attendance will undoubtedly suffer this season as a result of Michigan backing out of a game that had been scheduled for this weekend and the Bruins’ game against Washington on Sept. 30 falling on a Friday night because of Pac-12 Conference scheduling requirements.

Those yearning for the construction of an on-campus stadium or a move to Sofi Stadium should probably abandon those hopes — UCLA’s Rose Bowl lease runs through June 30, 2044, and does not include an opt-out clause.

The sparse crowd Saturday sparked some teasing among national media and on message boards, with one fan joking on Bruin Report Online that the game could have been played on campus at 11,700-seat Drake Stadium.

“It obviously is a little disappointing because, you know, we’re trying to put on the best showcase for as many people as we can,” Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said of the attendance. “But we try not to worry about it too much. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really affect how we play. We gotta go out there and win the game regardless. We know they’re out there watching us, supporting still, so it’s all love at the end of the day, for sure.”

To be fair, UCLA’s falloff mirrors a nationwide decline in college football attendance. The average crowd among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams was 39,848 in 2021, the smallest since 1981.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala celebrate in the end zone.

A light crowd watches UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, right, and wide receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala celebrate after Thompson-Robinson ran the ball in for a touchdown during the second half against Bowling Green Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

But Bruins fans must cast a jealous glance across town to see a fuller house. Facing similar heat and a similarly no-name opponent — albeit with a full contingent of students in the stands — USC drew 60,113 at the Coliseum for its opener against Rice in Trojans coach Lincoln Riley’s debut.

Afterwards, Riley sounded as if he was just getting started in his efforts to sell out the place.

“We’re going to keep working,” Riley said, “until people can’t even stand the thought of not coming to a USC football game.”

Meanwhile, Kelly thanked the fans who braved the triple-digit heat at the Rose Bowl and said he wasn’t concerned about a dip in attendance considering the trajectory of a program that holds its longest winning streak since his arrival.

“Our job is to play football,” Kelly said, “so we’ve won our last four. … I think everything is going in the right direction.”

Is that enough? Sam Andress, a longtime UCLA fan who attended his first game at the Rose Bowl as a 3-year-old in 1984, cited Kelly’s lack of engagement with donors among the factors that made him give up his season tickets after Kelly’s first season.

Last month, Andress said he attended a preseason banquet on campus that was lagging in energy. There was no fight song played, no eight-claps broke out. Coaches spoke for about 10 minutes combined.

“Chip doesn’t seem like he cares about fans and donors and alumni,” Andress said before referring to a famously gruff coach who has won six national championships at Alabama. “So to me, it’s like if you’re not going to win at a Nick Saban level, then you don’t get to not be interested in fans and donors that are paying for your program.”

Asked if there was more he could do to promote his program such as attend booster events or become active on social media, Kelly said, “We don’t have any booster events that have been recommended. We always struggle early in the year no matter where you are because we don’t have the students on campus, so we don’t start classes until the end of the month so that’s always been an issue.”

Andress was among those who attended the opener, scoring two seats in a suite for under $100 each so that he could keep Zeke, his 2-year-old son, in air-conditioned comfort for his first UCLA game.

Capacity at the Rose Bowl has been reduced to 53,390 for this season after a second tarp covering seats was added to match the one in the opposite end zone. The school spokesperson said the tarps can be removed, if needed, based on ticket demand and other factors.

Another small crowd is expected this weekend, when the Bruins (1-0) face a Football Championship Subdivision school for the first time in Alabama State (2-0). UCLA is favored by 50½ points, making on-field drama unlikely except for a halftime show featuring the Mighty Marching Hornets, Alabama State’s decorated band.

Temperatures are forecast to reach the low to mid-80s, with a chance of rain, providing a respite from the searing heat of the previous week. For UCLA fans tired of seeing a mostly empty Rose Bowl, the biggest relief could come with larger crowds later in the season.

“I do think that this team can do some good things this year,” Nathanson said, “and hopefully by the ‘SC game, there will be 90,000 people in the Rose Bowl like there should be.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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