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Football must win to put fans back in seats

By Brett Fera
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday October 10, 2003

As the UA football team gets set for its first home game since head coach John Mackovic's firing two weeks ago, athletics department officials say the key to bringing fans back to Arizona Stadium is as simple as winning games.

On average, fewer than 42,000 fans made their way through the gates of Arizona Stadium during the team's first four home games this year. Halfway through the 2003 campaign, the Wildcats' only win is a season-opening 42-7 blowout of visiting Texas-El Paso.

"At some point in time it does come down to winning," Livengood said. We're trying to do more fan friendly things, more family friendly things. Bottom line though is that people will come out if it's a good product."

Attendance at the 56,002 seat stadium has dropped each of the last five seasons, since the Wildcats averaged more than 51,000 fans per game in 1999. Since Mackovic was hired in December 2000 to replace longtime UA head coach Dick Tomey average attendance has fallen by nearly 7,500 fans per game.

Fans in the Zona Zoo student section chanted "Fire Mackovic" during the team's first few home games this season. One fan even created a Web site to show his displeasure with the team's plight. During one three game stretch before Mackovic was temporarily replaced with his defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, the Wildcats went 0-3 and were outscored by a more than 5-1 margin.

Some UA students have stopped attending football games altogether, also citing the team's lackluster performance.

"I went to the first couple, but (the games) stopped being fun," said Ben Bloch, a pre-business freshman.

"I went to all the games my freshman year, but have only gone to one this year." added Greg Vannoni, a computer engineering sophomore.

With family weekend beginning today, tomorrow's football game against Pacific-10 conference foe UCLA is expected to have a large turnout, said Chris Del Conte, senior associate athletics director for sports programs and operations.

"We sure do expect a significant increase because the events are attended by a good deal more than our core base of fans," Del Conte said. "Right now we have over 40,000 seats already spoken for. We also changed the time to 3:30 p.m. to be more accommodating to families."

Livengood attributes much of the decrease in fan support to a lack of success on the playing field, something he hopes will turn around in the near future.

"We don't have to win all the time, but its got to be exiting enough to give three and half hours of their valuable time on a Saturday night," Livengood said.

The Wildcats have failed to produce a winning home mark since that 1999, going 11-18 at Arizona Stadium during the stretch, including the team's 1-3 home record so far this year.

Del Conte echoed Livengood's sentiments, noting that no publicity campaign can produce as much fan support as the success of the team can. He added that there are no specific plans in the works to increase attendance, and that the biggest priority is to re-create a winning program at the UA.

"You can take our best years ever and see huge attendance, like when we were 12-1 in '98 or when we beat Miami in the fiesta bowl," Del Conte said. "We have a core base of fans of about 25,000 people that bleed red and blue. At some point, the team has to become successful to increase that."

President Peter Likins equated the situation to a double-edged sword, noting that while it's true that if the team plays better more fans will attend, it also could be true that if more fans showed up, it might motivate the team.

"If the basketball team had a bad year, the fans would stick with the team anyway. If the softball team had a bad year the softball fans would be there anyway, because they really are loyal to the program and to these youngsters,"

Likins said. "Our football fans don't have that kind of loyalty and if they did that would make the kids feel better."

Livengood said the search for Mackovic's permanent successor is instrumental in creating a winning attitude on campus. He said he thinks that if UA students are excited about the football team when they arrive in the fall, the campus will be more likely to rally around the team.

"If the football team is doing well when school year starts there is a different type of energy on campus," he said.

Livengood said it's just a matter of time before things start looking up for Arizona football.

"I think that we're going to have as well rounded of a program in the country pretty soon here," Livengood said. "It's a bit of a chicken and egg. We've got the egg part, which is a great fan base. Now we've got to corral that chicken part and that's winning some games."

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