Saving EMU football: Gameday at Rynearson Stadium
One factor completely under Eastern Michigan’s control is the stadium. As others have detailed, Rynearson’s current layout is a mess, but to really understand how it got this way requires a little history lesson.
Around mid-century, all the athletic fields at EMU were near the corner of Oakwood and Washtenaw, just west of McKenny Union. In the late 1960s, the Hurons saw one of their greatest periods of success under head coach Dan Boisture. From 1967 through 1973, the Hurons posted winning records in every one of Boisture’s seven seasons. With the renewed success, the old athletic fields were no longer sufficient, and a new off-campus football stadium, Rynearson Stadium, was constructed.
Rynearson Stadium had an initial capacity of 15,500, and fans packed it to see Boisture’s teams play. The 1971 squad, which finished the regular season 7-0-2 and went to the first bowl in school history, drew one of only two sell-outs Rynearson’s 41 years when 17,360 spectators crowded in on October 16, 1971, to see the Hurons battle the Eastern Kentucky Colonels to a 0-0 tie.
Following the 1973 season, Boisture left the Hurons to coach the ill-fated Detroit Wheels in the World Football League, and arrangements were made for the team to play their home games at Eastern Michigan. To accommodate WFL needs, Rynearson Stadium was expanded to seat 22,227 spectators and lights were added. The Detroit Wheels folded in the middle of their inaugural season, and EMU was left with a larger stadium, which it sold out only once, when 23,003 fans watched the Hurons fall 31-24 to the Western Michigan Broncos on October 22, 1988. In 1992, NCAA rules required Division I-A programs (now FBS) to have stadia with minimum capacities of 30,000. While leaving the track in place, new concrete seating was built on the east side and added to the south end on the west side, bringing the stadium up to its current 30,200 size. Today the minimum capacity rules are gone (replaced by an attendance rule which EMU struggles to meet), but Rynearson’s ungainly south end remains.
If the Eagles are ever going to attract the sort of fan support they’ll need to be successful, something must be done about this. Obviously a complete rebuild is out of the question due to the cost, so I think the best option would be to demolish section 110-119 and half of section 120. This would remove the worst seats, all south of the southern end zone. This would also reduce Rynearson Stadium’s capacity to about 23,000-24,000, leaving EMU with the occasional possibility of a sell-out game; EMU has never topped 87% of the current capacity and has only topped 75% four times since the last expansion.
Why does capacity matter? As Phil Steele wrote just a few days ago, “ Let’s face it, a crowd of 45,000 in a 45,000 seat stadium is louder than a crowd of 45,000 in a half-full 90,000 seat stadium.” EMU is not going to draw a crowd of 45,000 any time soon, but the same statement is true of smaller numbers; a 15,000- to 22,000-person crowd will seem like a lot more in a 23,000 seat stadium than in a 30,200 seat stadium. Plus, as time goes on, the higher excitement from a fuller (smaller stadium) may actually help improve attendance, because — let’s be honest — it’s hard to get excited about going to a football game if you know you’ll have an entire section of the stadium to yourself. Crowds breed more crowds.
Beyond physical changes to Rynearson Stadium, Eastern Michigan administration can, and should, take other steps to foster a culture of attendance. Last fall, EMU held the new student orientation the afternoon of the first game. They ended the campus tours at the convocation center, fed the new students, and encouraged them to go to the game, inviting them on to the field for the pre-game tunnel. That contributed to the season-high attendance of 14,499, and it was one good step toward the culture of attendance. Rather than entering season-ticket buyers into a raffle, the administration should reward actual attendance. Attendance-based giveaways helped spike 2009-2010 men’s basketball attendance by 25%, and EMU can and should take a similar approach to football. Giveaways could also focus on the culture surrounding football. Giving away coolers, small grills, and folding chairs could help encourage fans to tailgate and attend subsequent games.
EMU is also going to need to maximize the impact of what fan support there is. In addition to some giveaways encouraging and rewarding ongoing attendance, other game-day giveaways should be noisemakers like thundersticks and vuvuzelas, rather than frisbees and t-shirts. Likewise, the EMU Marching Band, “The Pride of the Peninsula” currently sits at the front of section 102, and generally speaking, plays to the north end of the field and anyone who happens to sit on the east side, usually fans of the visiting team. The band could be a lot more effective at pumping up the home crowd if they were placed amidst or behind the crowd. I’d suggest placing them near the top of section 105 or 106, or even spreading them out several sections wide directly in front of the press box. Moving the band nearer the press box would have the added bonus of making them sound louder in radio and television broadcasts. Hearing more of the band and the crowd in game broadcasts will help encourage more people to come and create a culture of attendance. Again, crowds breed more crowds.
Finally, the university also needs to use regular attendees as attendance advocates. For example, anyone who attends each of the first four games might be invited to bring three friends to a special tailgate at the season finale against Northern Illinois. Anyone who attends all five home games might be invited to special off-season activities to keep them excited about EMU football. Those people — fewer than 1500 in 2009 — are the core supporters of the team; they want to see the team win, they want to see sell-out crowds, they want all their friends to come to the games, and they want a great game-day atmosphere at Rynearson Stadium. Eastern Michigan needs to offer them every available tool to make that happen.