When it comes to dissecting attendance numbers across the ACC, context and perspective are required.
The league had three schools ranked in the Top 25 in the nation in attendance in 2013 -- the usual standouts Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech. Clemson, in fact, set a school record this season with an average of 82,048 fans per home game, thanks in large part to blockbuster home matchups against Georgia and Florida State.
Only four schools had attendance drop more than a negligible amount. Just two had them drop more than 5 percent. Only two schools were filled to less than 75 percent capacity. Pitt was one of five FBS schools to see an attendance increase of more than 8,000 per game. All seemingly good news for the league.
Average attendance across the ACC was 49,982, slightly up from 2012, when it averaged 49,910 (keep in mind the ACC had 14 schools in 2013 and 12 in 2012). This ranks the league last among the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, but here is where the context comes in -- the ACC now has four of the 10 smallest stadiums among power-five conference teams, more than any of its big-league brethren. It has smaller alumni bases, too.
Meanwhile, the ACC only has two stadiums that seat 80,000. Functionally speaking, the ACC does not have stadiums big enough to compete with the average attendance in the SEC (75,674) or Big Ten (70,431).
But that is not to say everybody is satisfied with attendance levels across the league. The average attendance in 2012 was the lowest in the ACC in 12 years. The goal, of course, is to continue to grow attendance everywhere, at the smallest schools and the largest.
Now, obviously winning and home schedules are huge factors in how well school fare at attracting crowds. Pitt benefited greatly from a vastly improved home schedule that featured Florida State, Notre Dame and Miami. Georgia Tech saw a 10 percent increase in its attendance thanks to home games against Virginia Tech (on a Thursday night) and Georgia.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, had its 93-game home sellout streak snapped against Western Carolina last September, ending the third-longest active sellout streak in the country. The Hokies did not have the best home slate, with no Thursday night games for the first time in 11 seasons, and the program has not won at the same clip as it did several years ago. Its average attendance dipped 2 percent.
Winning helped Florida State average nearly the same attendance in 2013 as it did the season before despite a lackluster home schedule. But the Seminoles also had several promotions scheduled going into the season to help make games more attractive to fans. They touted the return of Bobby Bowden against NC State, and honored the 1993 national champions against Syracuse.
Indeed, athletic departments have been forced to get creative to try to sell tickets and attract more fans. FSU has started meetings twice a week featuring people in the marketing, digital media, ticketing and sports information departments, along with boosters. The goal is to figure out ways to reach fans who are not ticket holders just yet.
Also, the athletic department added retention team to the sales staff just this month as a way to create a better experience for season ticket holders. The goal is to be more personable, and more accessible for questions or concerns. In addition, the school hired former ACC official Karl Hicks as deputy athletics director for external operations, where he will oversee, in part, tickets, sports information, marketing and promotions, and communications.
Georgia Tech is considering an auction-style sales format to help increase revenue from the biggest home game on the 2014 schedule -- against Clemson on Nov. 15. Northwestern used a similar format last season against Ohio State and Michigan and ended up getting more per sideline ticket for both games than its highest ticket price in 2012.
League schools exchange ideas on how to increase attendance throughout the course of an academic year. Recently at the winter meetings, one of the topics discussed was how to improve connectivity at venues to keep fans happy. People so wired to cell phones and technology that frustration often sets in at packed stadiums when fans cannot get a signal or send a text or tweet.
Next season, the ACC trades out Maryland for Louisville. The Cardinals have a bigger stadium than the Terps and filled it to 95 percent capacity in 2013 -- compared to 80 percent for Maryland. And that was playing a weak American schedule.
Still, Louisville sold out its season ticket allotment and expects even better crowds in 2014, with home games against Miami, Florida State and Kentucky. Florida State expects a big home boost, too, with games against Clemson, Florida and Notre Dame in Tallahassee.
So there are reasons for optimism as the league looks toward the future.