The official attendance for last week's Southern Miss-Kentucky football game in Hattiesburg had to draw a double take from most USM fans.
It was apparent at kickoff that the crowd had fallen well short of expectations, but the final number was stunning – 22,761. It's all the more surprising when you consider that USM led Conference USA in attendance last year with an average of 28,588 fans at 36,000-seat Roberts Stadium.
USM senior associate athletic director Stephen Pugh, who handles external operations, said that the number announced Saturday accounted for all tickets sold and distributed for the game.
“That was the number of tickets we had out for the game,” Pugh said Tuesday. “That included tickets sold, comp tickets and how many students were scanned in.”
Also included in the number were the band and USM staff on hand at Roberts Stadium.
Similar crowds in the past have drawn announced attendance in the neighborhood of 27,000, but Pugh is confident Saturday's official attendance hit the mark.
“We sat down and figured it out,” Pugh said. “I don't know how attendance was decided previously.”
The weather was beautiful on game day, with blue skies and a high temperature around 88 degrees, but Pugh said that there was an average number of walk-up tickets sold on Saturday. He said that the number of tickets sold at the stadium on game day is usually around 600-800.
There have only been six announced crowds smaller than Saturday's game at USM since 2008. The announced crowd for Saturday's contest would have been the smallest during 2012 season, which featured a winless record for the Golden Eagles.
No matter how you put it, Saturday's crowd wasn't a good one for the opener.
“I think it's something where we obviously want to grow it,” Pugh said. “I don't know if disappointed is the correct word. We want to continue to build the fan base. Driving revenue is really our big focus. That comes over time. We're continuing to enhance the game day experience and provide top notch customer service.”
Pugh emphasized that he and athletic director Jon Gilbert are focused on generating more revenue through ticket sales.
“For us, the gross ticket revenue (for Saturday's game) was the fourth highest since 2008 and concessions had their highest revenue since Mississippi State in 2015,” Pugh said. “There were some positives there. We'll continue to grow it.”
USM officials hoped for a sizable crowd for the opener considering the school was hosting its first out-of-state SEC program in school history. The Wildcats were also coming off a bowl bid and a 7-6 season that included a win over Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the regular season finale.
Last year's 44-35 win by USM at Kentucky was considered one of the biggest non-conference victories of the last decade for the program, ending a 13-game losing streak to SEC schools that dated back to 2000.
Kentucky won Saturday's game 24-17 despite being out-gained 364-254. USM lost three fumbles, including one that was returned for a touchdown for the Wildcats' final score of the game late in the third quarter.
Saturday's game featured increased ticket prices with upper level tickets costing $30 a pop and lower level tickets sitting at $40. Ticket prices for the rest of the season will be $20 for upper level seats and $30 for the lower level.
Gilbert was hired as USM athletic director on Jan. 24, replacing Bill McGillis, who is now in a similar role at the University of San Diego. Gilbert hired Pugh, who started working at USM in May, away from a similar position at Tulsa.
USM hosts Southern University at 6 p.m. on Saturday and SWAC opponents typically draw some of the better crowds to Roberts Stadium.
“It's been picking up this week,” Pugh said. “We should have a pretty good crowd. Southern University will bring some fans as well. With their band, there will be an entertainment factor as well.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Southern University
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: 104.9 FM