Support for the Kansas football program is about much more than putting fans in the stands these days

Kansas coach Lance Leipold during the first day of practice on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

Kansas football coach Lance Leipold has plenty to worry about between now and the Sept. 2 season opener against Tennessee Tech.

But the one concern that likely will not go away by then, no matter how sharp his players look or how solid his depth chart appears, is the importance of support for the Kansas football program he oversees.

“Does it keep me up at night,” Leipold asked Monday. “Sure.”

For more than a decade now, KU fans have been asked to throw their support behind the unknown that is Kansas football. But more often than not, preseason promise and optimism have given way to midseason struggles, ugly outings and, of course, more losses.

Any of the coaches and administrators who have been a part of the program during this recent rough stretch will tell you that trying to turn things around with limited support made the job harder than it already was. But Leipold will tell you that support has a different definition these days and is no longer just about getting fans in the stands.

“College athletics has changed drastically, and the impact (of) what is needed, compared to what support used to be, is more important now,” Leipold said Monday, when asked how big of a distraction the burden of inspiring fan support and attendance is for his players and program.

“That’s for me to worry about,” Leipold added, saying that his players’ only job is to show up each day striving to be the best versions of themselves.

“I don’t really think it needs to go much past me,” he continued. “I don’t even think it should go to our coaches. I’ve been hired to do to do a job and help direct something. Do I understand that? I understand that it goes beyond the importance of just our football program and our athletic department. I don’t know if everyone fully understands that yet. But it does. That’s what can make it really exciting and special.”

Put another way, Leipold’s words could be taken as a warning that the future financial wellbeing of the university as a whole, and perhaps even the city in some ways, could be at stake if Kansas does not find a way to start filling its football stadium and elevating the program on a regular basis.

The easiest way to do that, of course, is by winning games. Leipold, his staff and their players all know that, and they’re working toward it each day. But results likely will take time and there might not be as much time as once believed.

As conference realignment continues to rage into an uncertain future for many, it’s possible that the distinction between the haves and have nots will be tied to which programs can show — visibly and otherwise — the most support for their football programs in the years ahead.

Regardless of whether you think Kansas landing in the Big Ten is a pipe dream or a possibility, this much is certain: KU’s never going to get there with the attendance figures and set up it currently has.

It’s no coincidence that programs like Texas Tech, San Diego State, Boise State, SMU and more have recently announced major stadium projects or high-dollar NIL deals for their football players. There is motivation behind every move these days.

At KU, moving the attendance number closer to capacity would be considered a major victory at the outset.

In the past five seasons alone — not counting the COVID season of 2020 — KU football has averaged 25,147 fans per game. That’s roughly half capacity and features a season-best mark of 33,875 per game during Les Miles’ first season in 2019 and season lows in the 19,000s in both 2018 and 2021.

It’s important to note, however, that this is not just a KU issue.

In February, CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reported that college football attendance at the FBS level as a whole had declined for the seventh consecutive year. The 2021 FBS average of 39,848 fans per game across 130 FBS programs was the lowest since 1981.

As the Big 12 and Pac-12 continue to spar from afar and jockey for position in the new Power 2 era of college athletics, many of the reports about which conference has a stronger future have been based on attendance. So even if it’s not the Big Ten that you have your heart set on, impacting and hoping for increased attendance at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium is still in every KU fan’s best interest.

Like any KU coach, Leipold would love to see a full stadium six times during the upcoming season. But he also understands that the idea of support extends far beyond fans showing up on Saturdays.

In the new world, support includes name, image and likeness opportunities for players, both those on campus and those being sought on the recruiting trail. It also can be measured in facility upgrades, available resources and a program’s ability to adapt to change quickly to keep up with the rest of the college landscape.

Improvement for KU in many of those areas is a work in progress. That, too, will take time. But whether it’s seeking $400 million for a new stadium or inspiring that one extra family to sign up for season tickets, Leipold and many others at KU believe that building their way out of the unpleasant past will be a group effort.

“Everybody plays a part,” Leipold said Monday. “And it’s going to be impactful to everything, not just football but (everything) our athletic department does and how we move forward and our fan base and the passion and where we go because we know that these are definitely different times.

“The great thing is I think people are excited. Whether (that’s about) this university, about our athletic department or about football, they all are going to be important for the future of the University of Kansas. And if you’re one of those or all three of those, hopefully people are going to come out and show that support of the team.”


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