Story written by Denise Meredith
While Arizonans focus on the miserable Cardinals’ performance this weekend, there are high hopes in Tempe. Those hopes are pinned on Kalen Ballage and the team’s ability to fill the seats at Sun Devil Stadium.
In his 2015 analysis of ASU attendance at Sun Devil, Gary Doran detailed the many possible reasons that the team had only had nine sell-outs in 14 years, including losing seasons, lack of interest in the opposing teams, the heat, and an out-of-date stadium. Fans, moving here from rabid fan bases at Notre Dame or USC, might be surprised at the sparse, relatively quiet Sun Devil crowd, even during a winning season. Doran says “win and they will come” does not work in Tempe.
But ASU may be where the Cardinals were in 2005. Their record was 5-11, the small crowds only came to see the opposing teams, and you could not buy a Cardinals jersey anywhere in town. But as they moved into the new stadium in 2006, some of the players, like Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner, who would go onto stardom, were starting to simmer.
Similarly, Ballage and quarterback Manny Wilkins are starting to hum. Ballage’s heroics give ASU the national media visibility it seldom gets. He is the epitome of the new, multi-skilled player; he is a talented receiver, as well as a strong running back. In high school, Ballage was ranked among the best running backs and athlete prospects. Wilkins was also one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country. Besides their level and style of play, what is encouraging is that Ballage and Wilkins chose ASU while being heavily recruited by other schools. Their talent and success can definitely enhance ASU’s image and help attract other top candidates, particularly players of color.
Sun Devil Stadium is in the midst of a $268 million rehabilitation. In fact, one of the dampers on attendance this year may be people, having heard of the massive program, not even thinking the team is playing there this year. But the project is phased to allow the team to keep playing. In 2017, the stadium will be airier, have more spacious seats, better bathrooms and concessions, Wi-Fi, and a massive scoreboard. The University of Phoenix Stadium has been sold out since it opened; Sun Devil Stadium has the potential to mimic that success.
Finally, leadership will be critical to credibility and winning back the fans, as well as the games. Todd Graham, who has an ASU record of wins in his first three years, has a reputation as a disciplined coach. Ray Anderson, a former executive in the NFL, has brought class, skill and new, high expectations to ASU’s athletic program. President Michael Crow has dispelled the old image of ASU as the top party school. ASU is now respected for research, and has been named the #1 university in innovation for the past two years. Today, ASU provides a great environment for student athletes.
Sparky has had a lot of push-ups to do after touchdowns this year. After going 4-0 so far this season, maybe Bellage and Wilkins will be the ones to wear Sparky out and fill the stands at Sun Devil Stadium