In 2010, updates and renovations to Neyland Stadium capped attendance at 102,455. Gone were the days of, “Let’s see just how many human beings we can get in here,” with a new attendance record always, in theory, just one or two more ushers away. That mark will probably forever stand at 109,061 from the 2004 Florida game; the Vols last crossed the 107,000 mark in 2007 against Georgia.
With those updates – and more coming that will shrink attendance further – the sell-out becomes the go-to statistic. Lane Kiffin correctly noted this week that Saturday night will be the first 102,455 in Neyland Stadium since the 2017 Georgia game. But it’s also just the 17th in the last 11 seasons, not counting last year’s pandemic model.
Those 17 include:
- Every Florida and Alabama game from 2010-16, but not 2018 (or 2020)
- Every Georgia game from 2011-17, but not 2019
- 2013 Auburn & 2015 Oklahoma
- The Sunday night Labor Day weekend opener with Utah State in 2014
- 2014 Kentucky, the game after Josh Dobbs exploded at South Carolina
- 2021 Ole Miss
The Rebels being ranked #13 makes it feel like a fair addition to the list. But it was interesting to me, in going back through all the announced attendance figures at UT’s official site, to see how similar contests faired in Neyland:
- 2018 vs #11 Kentucky: 95,258
- 2014 vs #19 Missouri: 95,821
- 2013 vs #11 South Carolina: 95,736
- 2011 vs #9 South Carolina: 96,655
As you can see, we’re well past the threshold of, “Ranked non-rival opponent with chance for upset.” Tennessee, of course, did get two of those games. But the house wasn’t quite full to see it.
And it’s not just Kiffin, though he doens’t hurt. But if it was only Kiffin, this game would’ve been sold out long before this week.
When it comes to attendance, here’s the most noteworthy piece of data to me:
Lowest Attendance at Neyland 2010-21
- 2021 Tennessee Tech: 80,053
- 2012 Akron: 81,719
- 2012 Kentucky: 81,841 (shout out Jim Chaney)
- 2021 Pittsburgh: 82,203
- 2017 Vanderbilt: 83,117 (SHOUT OUT BRADY HOKE)
- 2012 Troy: 84,189
- 2021 Bowling Green: 84,314 (Thursday night)
Our first three home games this year are three of the seven least-attended games of the last 11 years. The other four on the list are from a fired-or-soon-to-be coach’s final season.
Certainly a factor: the pandemic. It’s why I haven’t really worried about it, or thought the comparison really valid. And it’s great that numbers in Knox County and elsewhere are trending in the right direction.
But Tennessee football has been fighting more than just the virus to get people to come. And you could see it start to happen last week. Look at the company last week’s South Carolina game finds itself in on the attendance charts of the last 11 seasons:
- 2021 South Carolina: 89,437
- 2011 Vanderbilt: 91,367 (Eric Gordon OT walk-off)
- 2019 BYU: 92,475
- 2019 Georgia: 92,709
- 2014 UTC: 93,097
- 2011 Cincinnati: 94,207
Last Saturday was already on pace with meaningful games from two seasons ago, when there was no pandemic. It’s also not far from an early temperature-check game from 2011 against Cincinnati, when we’d only been trying to get this thing right for a few years.
And either way, to me there’s nothing more telling than this: the Vols had 82,203 on September 11 against Pittsburgh. And we’ll have 102,455 on October 16 against Ole Miss.
I think the biggest factor isn’t the virus, or Kiffin, or the Rebels’ ranking.
The biggest factor is Tennessee.
The Vols have played their way to this opportunity tomorrow night. And the people have responded.
No matter what happens from here, I’m not sure how many people will come to the South Alabama game; Saturdays like that are probably more likely to be lower, even if case counts continue to decline into November. There are things we’ve just gotten used to, including the luxuries of staying home.
But there is no substitute for being there. And tomorrow night, there won’t be an empty seat in the house.
This season began with more reason to stay home than ever. But in no time at all, Josh Heupel’s team brought people to the threshold, even more than we’re used to seeing against this kind of opponent.
Again, what an incredible job by these guys so far to create this opportunity Saturday night.
It’s going to be a lot of fun in there.