LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It was the kind of day that then-University of Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich described to major Cardinal Athletic Fund donors at the 50-Yard Line Dinner in 2015, with the south end zone terrace at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium decked out in festive lights and the stadium fully illuminated on a pleasant August night.

In fact, it was even better than Jurich described. The date was Sept. 16, 2017. Defending national champion Clemson was visiting Louisville. ESPN’s College GameDay program was on campus for the second time in a calendar year. The Cardinals had defending Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson starting at quarterback.

Here’s the part Jurich didn’t describe, couldn’t likely have foreseen, as he painted the picture of an expanded stadium with 10,000 additional seats in the opposite end zone: The stadium for that Clemson game, and the largest crowd of the season for U of L in 2017, according to tickets scanned at stadium entrances, was 46,224. Even accounting for some error in the scanning process -- it's hard to believe there were really 9,000 empty seats for that game (announced attendance was 55,588 and tickets sold were 52,285) -- the game was not a sellout. 

That was among the findings of WDRB’s Christopher Otts, whose Sunday Edition story today examines the financing of the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium expansion, which came under some criticism from the facility’s namesake, John Schnatter, last week. Through public records requests, Otts found that one season before the stadium is to expand to around 65,000, the actual average attendance at Louisville games last season was 33,785.

There are a number of factors. Declining attendance nationally. Quality of opponents. Time of games -- the ACC hasn't done U of L any favors with the number of noon kickoffs. Some lump protest no-shows into the mix, given that athletic director Tom Jurich was placed on leave in September and fired in October of 2017. But none of that had happened the day Clemson and ESPN’s signature college football broadcast came to town, and Louisville still had around 3,000 unsold tickets, according to figures the university provided to Otts.

And in the 2017 season, actual attendance would decline every game after that, to a low of 19,715 for the home finale against Syracuse, played amid severe storms that on one occasion forced the stadium to be evacuated. The final home game of Lamar Jackson's storied college career was a freakish weather event, but even throwing that game out -- as Otts did -- attendance was down 13 percent.

Today, the north end zone expansion is a reality. The debt has been incurred, the construction is well under way, the christening is expected to be ready for Louisville’s home opener against Indiana State on Sept. 8.

And the better news for U of L is that no matter what the scanned numbers say, the school continues to sell a bunch of tickets – better than 50,000 per game in 2017 – and that suggests that it has enjoyed an extraordinary level of financial support, whether people are in their seats for the games or not.

But the challenge facing U of L athletic administrators today is, given the lagging attendance last season, will the seats in the stadium ever be filled? And will people keep buying seats if they aren’t using them?

In this, Louisville is fighting a trend that goes far beyond its own issues. College football attendance is declining nationally, and facilities are following suit. After a recent board of trustees meeting, U of L interim athletics director Vince Tyra noted the way things are going, while addressing a question about men’s basketball attendance.

“It’s a trend that’s going on nationally, as well as at the University of Louisville,” he said. “We’ve seen attendance figures at the NFL, NBA and we’ve seen this happen in college arenas. I’ve spoken to other athletic directors in the ACC, some of whom have downsized their facilities. Florida State just went through a $100 million renovation of their football stadium and took out seats and reduced it down to 80,000 (seats) and probably could’ve reduced it further. Clemson did a renovation of its basketball arena and took it down 1,200 seats, from 10,000 to about 8,800. You’re seeing this. There’s other media, other avenues for fans to enjoy and support their teams. I personally still enjoy being there live, but there are other mechanisms to do that. And I think that’s why we’re putting an investment behind the ACC Network and the broadcast studio (on campus).”

The other question, and it is an obvious one, is a question Otts put to Tyra and would have put to Jurich had he accepted an interview request: Was the decision to expand the stadium a wise one given the national attendance trends and the research into Louisville’s college football market in particular?

Tyra stopped short of endorsing that expansion decision, saying only that the expansion is a reality, that the funding projections appear to be on target, and that the department would work to make it a success.

Schnatter’s complaint is that spending $55 million on expanding a football stadium when the university has other glaring financial needs, like paying faculty competitively, sends a bad message to the university community and creates a problem of morale among the faculty.

His point is undeniable. It does. Others argue that the money to pay for the stadium comes from donations for that purpose specifically, donations that likely wouldn’t have been made for the purposes Schnatter was talking about.

The good news with expansion is that the premium seating already has been sold or committed, including a dozen field-level suites and about 1,000 club level seats. The bulk of the 10,000 seats have yet to go on sale, but Tyra said from the projections he has looked at, paying for the expansion is not a problem.

The expansion will be paid for by donations and revenues generated from the project. It is funded with $55 million in bonds raised by the university, to be paid off over 20 years at a total of about $82 million.

At the time the expansion was announced, I wrote that Jurich had always operated from this vision: He built facilities for the programs he wanted, not the programs he had. His view always was on the future. And this expansion was about more than the 10,000 seats you will see. It was about the expanded football facilities behind the expansion, something most fans will never see but which recruits and players will benefit from greatly.

All that is well and good. And right now, if athletics can pay for the expansion itself, is that not the important thing? It’s not hard to imagine the facility being close to full when Notre Dame visits, or Kentucky, and it only takes a couple of oversized crowds a year to jolt the revenue.

But the attendance figures last year are what they are. And it’s tough to imagine, if you can’t fill a 55,000-seat stadium with an unbeaten team, the Heisman-winning quarterback, and GameDay and the defending national champions in town, that you’re going to fill a 65,000-seat stadium very often.

That’s a concern, I don’t care what the financial numbers say. And this also bothers me:

One thing nobody told the boosters that night when pitching the idea, something most at the university weren’t aware of, and something the media only became aware of later when audits and other reports began to come in, was that the university itself was footing the light bill for that party at the fully illuminated stadium. While athletic department revenues have risen impressively since the move to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the athletic department continued to accept subsidies from the university, and fees from students.

While the university itself is facing a budget crunch and shrinking dollars from the state, and while students are dealing with ever-rising tuition, for the university to subsidize a department whose revenues are growing – to the tune of $7.4 million in 2015-16, enough money nearly to fund three undergraduate academic departments – seems to belie misplaced priorities.

That money is directly out of the pockets of students and faculty. Pushing the envelope is fine. Tom Jurich changed the face of the Belknap Campus and the future of U of L athletics and likely the institution itself by always pushing forward and being an aggressive builder. It’s his legacy, and the present turmoil won’t alter that. But U of L athletics needs to get to the place where pushing the envelope doesn’t mean reaching into the university’s pockets, at a time when the trend of the richest athletics departments is to give money back to the university.

The day has come when U of L athletics is going to have to get by with what revenue it generates for itself. The challenge will be to keep that revenue increasing, empty seats and all.

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