As a loyal UH fan (and alum), one of the websites I frequent is Coogfans.com. Coogfans.com covers every major athletic sport that the University of Houston participates in.
One of the major sports is American football. This time of year is always a goofy time for football discussions at coogfans.com, because very little is really happening in college football this time of the year. As a result, the topic threads turn to the perennial oddball topics, such as the football uniform design, logo design, and football attendance.
Actually, of those three topics, football attendance is the most pressing. UH currently competes in Robertson Stadium, which is an older facility (originally built during the depression years) which seats approximately 31000. Note: It is also the home to Houston's professional soccer team, the Houston Dynamo, who only moved to Houston last year. The Dynamo won the Major League Soccer championship this past year, but are on record as desiring their own stadium - to be built with taxpayer help.)
The coogfans.com current football attendance debate revolves around how much to expand Robertson Stadium. All would like seating increases and better amenities at the stadium. Some have called for a doubling of capacity to near 65,000.
I also think Robertson Stadium amenities should be built and seating should increase, but only to 45,000 - and probably increased to that amount only in phases.
Here's why I think what I think:
1. UH has reached that level of interest in the past.
UH's detractors like to point out that UH can't attain a 45k average attendance. However, these detractors don't know UH history. UH had at or near as many people attending during the mid '60's and late '70's.
There two major differences between then and now are:
UH moved their games to the Astrodome in the mid 60's. A domed stadium was a novel idea during that time - nobody else in America played in one! The venue itself (and the ability to play games regardless of weather) helped to draw crowds. Although UH was an independent then, the team's record was also a good one, which also helped its draw.
Although the novelty of playing in the Astrodome fell off, UH drew very well in the mid-late 70's because they had a good record and were in the Southwest Conference. As a result, thelarger regional teams (mainly Texas, Texas A&M, and Arkansas) assured that UH would have good crowds. Of course, the kicker was that the football team's record was good - UH represented the SWC the first 3 out of 4 possible years it was in the SWC. The SWC split up in the early 90's.
Unfortunately, UH did not keep its attendance up, and as a result, it got snubbed by the larger schools, who chose Baylor (which had kept its attendance up) and formed the Big 12 conference. UH was left to scramble to join a conference (independent status was not feasible since most bowl games and television packages are negotiated by conference now, not by the NCAA as a whole). UH ultimately joined Conference USA, which initially aligned itself with some similar schools (Memphis, Louisville, Tulane, UAB, Cincinnatti), but the teams were too far away and thus, there was no rivalry as there had been with the more regional large schools.
1. The University of Houston is not like other campuses.
UH is located in the heart of the 4th largest city in the nation. It is unlike many other Universiites in the United States - which is why it is misunderstood by its benefactors and detractors.
Unlike Univ of Texas, Texas Tech, Florida State, LSU, Louisville, and other such schools, it is not in a smaller city or suburb, so it can't count on Houston city media attention, since it is not "the only game in town".
Unlike Texas A&M, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Southern Mississippi, it is not in the country, and is not a Morrill Land Grant school. So it doesn't have a "captive" fan base in the town that it's in.
It is unlike private schools that are associated with a particular religion, such as Baylor, TCU, SMU, Notre Dame, Boston College, Pittsburgh, and BYU are. It is an urban, public school whose mission was originally designed for the "working man". This makes it unlike Rice (Houston), Miami, Harvard (Boston), Tulane (New Orleans), Southern Cal(LA), Northwestern(Chicago), George Washington (DC), St. Louis, and other similar schools. As a result, it should draw larger crowds from an Alumni bas that's larger than a typical private school or other urban schools that happen to be private.
2. UH's real peers
As a result of realizing what UH is not, it's important make sure to carefully figure out which Universities are most in common with it, so as to get the most realistic comparisons. I did this several months ago, looking at several Universities which were similar to UH, then mapping their attendance against the number of wins per season (since everybody loves a winner, attendance goes up everywhere a winner is and goes down when they're a loser).
a) Metropolitan areas
Based on census statistics (Metropolitan Statistical Areas - "MSAs")- here's the schools that in the top 19 MSAs that are the best to measure UH against:
Metropolitan statistical areas Population Schools in that MSA
1 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 18,747,320 Rutgers
2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 12,923,547 USC, UCLA
USC is private
3 Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI 9,443,356 Northwestern
Northwestern is private
4 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 5,823,233 Temple
5 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 5,819,475 SMU, N.Texas, TCU
SMU and TCU are private
6 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach, FL 5,422,200 Miami (Fla.)
Miami is private
7 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 5,280,077 Houston, Rice
Rice is private
8 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 5,214,666 Maryland, Navy
Navy is a military institution
9 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 4,917,717 Georgia Tech
10 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 4,488,335
11 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 4,411,835 Boston College
Boston College is private
12 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 4,152,688 California
13 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 3,909,954
14 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 3,865,077 Arizona St.
15 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 3,203,314 Washington
16 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 3,142,779 Minnesota
17 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 2,933,462 San Diego St.
18 St. Louis, MO-IL 2,778,518
19 Baltimore-Towson, MD 2,655,675
Based on this list, UH's real peers are Rutgers, UCLA, San Diego State, Minnesota, Washington, Arizona St., California, Georgia Tech, and Maryland. Except for San Diego State, all of these peers have two things in common, which UH does not have:
1) They are flagship schools of their particular states
2) They compete in BCS (Bowl Championship Series) football conferences, which entitles them for a greater possibility of playing in the football national championship, and having a greater payout in end-of-season bowl games.
b) Attendance records
Of these schools, I have been able to obtain attendance records from UCLA, Washington, Georgia Tech, and Maryland. What I found was:
1) All school records fluctuate with wins. Many people at coogfans.com simply recommend that the attendance problems go away if the team "just wins". While winning certainly helps, it doesn't keep the fan base there. If it did, UH would have maintained a 45k fan base during the mid-late '80s, when it was routinely competing in the top 20 rankings.
2) UCLA and Washington's average attendance have been in the 50-60k range (UCLA) or in 50-60k and trending to 70k (Washington). However, those schools are state "flagship" schools.
3) Georgia Tech's attendance has fluctuated mostly in the 40's. It peaked over 50k only twice in the last 40 years: once in 1967 and again in 2003. Georgia Tech's record was mostly in the mid 30's from approximately 1978 through 1990, which coincided with poor on-field performance (except for 1985, and the attendance did not get much over 40k in 84-85).
4) Maryland's attendance has fluctuated between low 30k and mid 40k from 1975 through 2000!
In summary, I think UH's attendance is most like the University of Maryland's.
Although Maryland is a Land Grant school and is in a BCS conference (the ACC), the ACC's football records are usually considered weaker (it is more known for basketball). In addition, both schools face stiff local competition for Division 1 athletics attention (Houston: Rice, Texas A&M, Texas; Maryland: Navy, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgetown). Both schools face professional football competition as well. Both schools are also in metropolitan areas with large percentages of the population which are essentially transient (Houston, Washington DC).
Most importantly, with all these similarities, Maryland's stadium is approximately 45k. This is why I think UH cannot justify a staduim larger than that - no school of a similar size or environment could.
This is actually good news for UH! It shows that there is a sizable university in a similar environment that can be justified to be in a BCS conference. However, it also shows that even being in a BCS conference would not justify a stadium larger than 45k. For this reason, I recommend UH expand Robertson stadium amenities, with shower/locker rooms, press boxes, luxury boxes, and refreshment areas coming first. Then, I would expand seating in a staged approach, gradually getting to 45k. Given that Maryland already gets this, this should be of sufficient size (assuming attendance comes along) to justify UH belonging in a BCS conference. It may be possible to develop an architecture which could be added on to the 45k size, but given UH's attendance history (even in the best years UH did not average 45k) and the environment UH is in, I would not count on expanding beyond 45k.