MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Beneath crackling fireworks and the familiar guitar twangs of “Country Roads,” baseball players from West Virginia swayed arm-in-arm along the first-base line. Their 2-0 win over Pitt was being appreciated by some 2,800 fans who came out for a Tuesday night game, and players reciprocated appreciation for the folks in the grandstand who unwittingly had set a record themselves.
The 40,616 total fans at Monongalia County Ballpark this season surpassed 2016’s benchmark, a feel-good perk for the home finale in what has been a feel-great year for WVU ticket-sales across the board.
With “Press Virginia” soaring inside the renovated Coliseum, men’s basketball attendance established a single-season record of 204,742. The football team’s surprising 10-win season drew more than 403,000 fans, fifth-best in the 37 years of Milan-Puskar Stadium. Women’s soccer enjoyed seven of the top 10-attended matches in program history on its way to the College Cup.
“Definitely a banner year,” said Matt Wells, the Mountaineers’ senior associate athletics director of external affairs. “Winning makes the marketing director look a heck of a lot smarter.”
Roomier concourses, expanded concession areas and upgraded restrooms highlighted the facelift inside the WVU Coliseum. Outside, pedestrian and traffic flow improved after a consultant advised the athletics department on ingress/egress tweaks.
The lackluster string of early season tune-up games wasn’t so fan-friendly, with Northern Kentucky (No. 85) the highest-RPI nonconference opponent to visit Morgantown. However, fans were enthralled by a WVU team that started in the AP top 20 and climbed to No. 7 on three occasions.
“There’s a lot to be said for the passion of the fan base, because some schools win and still don’t draw,” Wells said. “You have to tip your hat to the fans for showing up, turning out and packing the stands.”
On senior night March 3, an overflow crowd of 14,528 watched the Mountaineers beat No. 24 Iowa State 87-76 to clinch the Big 12’s second seed. In breaking the 200,000 barrier for the first time ever, 2017 pulled past the Final Four season of 2010 that drew 173,281.
This season’s per-game average of 11,375 ranked fourth-best in program history, and was No. 4 in the Big 12 behind Kansas, Iowa State and K-State.
Football attendance across the Big 12 essentially was flat last season, with the per-game average increasing by 184 fans. While the SEC again led the nation, its attendance dipped slightly, and the Pac-12 suffered a precipitous 3.4 percent drop.
West Virginia was among the schools that bucked the trend by averaging crowds of 57,583, up from the previous year’s 54,826. It marked the 24th-largest spike in the FBS and happened with virtually no increase in season-ticket sales.
A surge of gameday walk-ups turned the Missouri opener into a sellout. During Week 4, the final tickets for Kansas State were sold within 72 hours of kickoff. When another capacity crowd saw the Mountaineers beat TCU to improve to 6-0, that sellout was announced 10 days in advance.
“None of those teams were ranked or had a ton of hype, so they weren’t games you thought absolutely would sell out,” Wells said. “And we didn’t roll into August with all those tickets sold. We were able to make up for somewhat average season-ticket sales with increased mini-packages and single-game sales.
“Certainly the play on the field as we got into September and October was a huge help.”
Among the mini-packages WVU offered before the season was a four-game set of Mizzou, K-State, Kansas and Oklahoma, along with two other three-game combos. By Oct. 10, trying to capitalize on the Mountaineers rising to No. 12 in the AP rankings, Wells and his marketing team added a fourth package covering the final three home games against Kansas, Oklahoma and Baylor. Buyers were incentivized by a slight discount from purchasing the games individually.
The season’s total attendance came within 8,000 of the 2006 school record. That mark likely would have fallen if not for a Nov. 19 snowstorm creating several thousand no-shows against Oklahoma and the Dec. 3 buzzkill of Baylor entering the season finale on a five-game skid.
Even with such a stellar year, WVU ranked fifth in the Big 12 in terms of attendance relative to stadium capacity. (Such is life when the normal crowds at Oklahoma, Baylor and K-State outsized their listed capacities.)
Tuesday night’s victory over Pitt further bolstered the Mountaineers’ case for earning their first NCAA regional bid since 1996.
It also marked the third consecutive year in which the county’s new $21-million ballpark reached attendance highs. West Virginia’s 1,846 fans per game were more than 300 above 2016’s average, and the 40,616 total headcount was achieved despite eight fewer home dates.
“What an awesome crowd. We had great crowds all season long,” WVU coach Randy Mazey said. “Hopefully the people that came had a great experience and are willing to come back next year. That helps us win games.”