UCLA was bound to lose in one significant tally Friday night at the Rose Bowl.
The Bruins’ home showdown against No. 23 Utah went head to head with the Dodgers’ marathon Game 3 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium. It was also played on a weekday, never the best time to get a big turnout for a college football game.
But the season-low crowd of 41,848 — the team’s smallest in 21 years — that witnessed UCLA’s 41-10 defeat wasn’t much of an aberration. UCLA has averaged 52,528 fans for its first five home games this season, putting the Bruins on pace for their lowest average at the Rose Bowl since averaging 49,825 in 1999.
If the numbers hold up, UCLA would finish with its fourth-lowest home average attendance since moving from the Coliseum to the Rose Bowl for the 1982 season.
“It is true that attendance for UCLA football at the Rose Bowl has been declining, a trend not unique to UCLA, as many other colleges are witnessing a similar decline,” Josh Rebholz, UCLA’s senior associate athletic director, said Saturday.
Rebholz noted that the Bruins are competing in a crowded sports landscape that includes a slew of professional sports teams and other entertainment options.
Attendance has undoubtedly suffered a ripple effect from the Bruins’ 0-5 start, which included nonconference home losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State.
UCLA’s average home attendance ranks fourth in the Pac-12 Conference, trailing Washington, USC and Oregon. The Bruins’ average attendance of 49,219 for their three conference home games ranks fifth in the Pac-12.
The last time the Bruins’ attendance numbers were this low, they were breaking in a new quarterback — Cory Paus taking over for the departed Cade McNown — for a team that finished 4-7 in 1999.
Newcomers Wilton Speight and Dorian Thompson-Robinson have navigated similar struggles at quarterback this season for a team that has gone 2-6, including 2-3 in Pac-12 games.
It was only two years ago that UCLA ranked No. 23 nationally in average home attendance, the Bruins drawing 67,459 per game while trailing only USC among Pac-12 teams. From 2005-2016, UCLA ranked in the top 28 nationally in average home attendance every year except 2011.
But the Bruins’ attendance was already sagging by the end of that run, down from the school-record 76,650 they averaged in 2014 during a 10-3 season.
UCLA’s home attendance has declined in each of the last three seasons after experiencing an increase of less than 1% in 2016 from 2015, when the Bruins averaged 66,858 fans.
The crowd that filled less than half the Rose Bowl on Friday was UCLA’s smallest since only 38,165 showed up on Oct. 18, 1997, to see the Bruins play Oregon State.
“[Friday] night, the attendance skewed our season average, competing against the Dodgers’ World Series home game and the challenges of playing a home football game on a Friday night,” Rebholz said. “We take seriously the responsibility of providing a game-day experience attractive to our fans.
“We appreciate every fan who invests the time, effort and money to support the team in person, and we are confident that when this young team under coach [Chip] Kelly becomes a consistent winner, we will see an uptick in attendance.”
This could be one instance in which USC comes to the rescue of its crosstown rival. The Bruins’ average attendance could get a significant boost by closing its home schedule with games against USC and Stanford, which typically draw bigger crowds.
Before he sat down to watch the gory footage, Kelly called his team’s loss to Utah its worst game from a tackling standpoint. And this came less than a week after the coach said he had counted 18 missed tackles against Arizona.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Bruins’ run defense has sustained its worst outings of the season in back-to-back games, the 289 rushing yards it allowed against Arizona topped by the 325 it surrendered against Utah.
Kelly cited the short turnaround as one issue in the latter game, the Bruins having only one full day in pads to prepare for the Utes. The flipside is that the team will get an extra day off before playing at Oregon next weekend.