The Countdown to Kickoff clock clicked past 30 days and the Virginia football team opened practice as August days started falling off the calendar. The Cavaliers open the season with Pittsburgh on Saturday, August 31 at 7:30 p.m. They face Florida State in week three at Scott Stadium and travel to Notre Dame to end September.
In other words, the Hoos come out of the gates with a lot of interesting contests. The “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series keeps moving.
42 – Fan Interest Thermometer
UVA’s 2019 season should feature a lot of intrigue. Immediately. As noted in the introduction, the Hoos open the season with a shot at last year’s Coastal Division Champion Pittsburgh. The Cavaliers likely need a win at Pitt to truly be in the ACC Coastal race even though that’s the first week of the season. The first ACC home game of the year is a Saturday night kickoff at Scott Stadium against Florida State, the original bully of the conference. The program wraps up September with its first ever trip to Notre Dame with the Irish just nine months removed from an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
That’s a lot of significance in the first five weeks.
It comes on the heels of a lot of progress. The Hoos notched the program’s first bowl victory since 2005 in a 28-0 romp against South Carolina. That left the final record for 2018 at 8-5. They are considered an ACC Coastal Division favorite by the media for the first time since divisions arrived in the league. Bryce Perkins is a potential ACC Player of the Year quarterback and a candidate for national awards, Bryce Hall is a national standout at corner, and the depth across the roster continues to improve.
Long story short, you’ve got a team with some talent and star power coming off the most successful season in more than 10 years with a fairly interesting set of games early in the year.
During the ‘lost decade’ with dwindling attendance, I frequently said it would take back-to-back bowl years to first re-engage Virginia football fans again. Like nudging someone who is asleep when they asked you to wake them up, but them groaning about five more minutes, that really just felt like a starting point, though.
So when someone asked me last week if football interest had picked up with last year’s success and the media’s preseason prediction, I decided to look it up, at least purely from a numbers standpoint. It turns out, UVA fans might have hit the snooze bar even harder than expected.
Looking at a four-year window from 2016 through 2019 shows a summer slumber that might be considered surprising given last year’s success and the potential for this year’s team. Comparing June 1-August 4 each year shows that this has been the slowest summer on the football message board in that time frame. That includes the summer months of 2017 that followed the rough 2-10 debut in 2016 for coach Bronco Mendenhall. The football board traffic for that time period is down 26.7% in 2019 when compared to 2018.
For just the first five days of August, the start to this month produced the second fewest page views from the four-year window. Only August 1-5 in 2017 was slower. It’s actually on pace to be the slowest August overall from the four-year window, but each year the board traffic increases as kickoff gets closer so that’s unlikely to happen. Still, the football board traffic over the first five days of August is down 9.5% from 2018 to 2019 (that’s better than the full summer trend). At least one message board thread speculated about slower ticket sales as well.
So what gives?
There can be a variety of theories. More fans use phones and tablets to view the site for example, which cuts down on some page views. Let’s be honest, though, some of it (OK, a whole lot of it) could be the Virginia Tech thing. The Hokies have a 15-year winning streak going. That’s annoying and likely a barrier to some fans reinvesting interests in full again. Perhaps, some fans remain in show me mode about the progress overall (maybe even because of that streak?). The bowl win was nice, but Coastal Division contender … ; some fans remember the false starts of rebuilding efforts that failed and it could be the proverbial once bitten, twice shy deal.
The schedule intrigue might not be as powerful at a glance (and a glance might be what many fans are giving football even now). Pittsburgh doesn’t move the needle as an ACC opponent because the Panthers still feel like an old Big East club. Plus, they’ve had three losing records since 2012, though two of those were 6-6 regular season records before bowl losses. FSU isn’t where it once was either, at least not as interest goes. After ending the year ranked with 10 wins in 2016, the Seminoles went 7-6 and 5-7 the past two years.
Notre Dame still draws a lot of interest, but the other two games in the first five weeks are against in-state foes William & Mary and Old Dominion. Despite the W&M game marking Mike London’s return and ODU’s upset of VT last season, those two games are not headliners. So maybe the schedule doesn’t interest some fans.
There’s certainly the basketball factor. With UVA winning its first basketball National Championship in April, fans remain fixated on the title run and everything that surrounds the program. People are rewatching NCAA Tournament games over and over. They’ve dissected Kyle Guy’s NBA Summer League games. Speculation on the roster and recruiting are always going.
So some of the football board traffic in the summer months simply shifted locations; in fact, the men’s basketball message board nearly doubled in page views (up 83.9%) from the same time period (June 1-August 4) in 2019 vs. 2018. It’s even drawn approximately 33% more views than the previous three-year high from 2016-2019. Yes, Wahoos still have basketball on the brain.
What will it take to awaken Virginia football interest for fans again then? For this season, a victory against Pitt out of the gates is probably a must, while getting one win between FSU and Notre Dame would give a little name brand boost. Taking both would be a real wake-up call, especially if it comes as part of a 5-0 start.
A Coastal Division title and ACC Championship Game appearance would help for sure; taking the ACC crown in an upset … well obviously that would do it. If the Hoos don’t make it there, back-to-back bowl wins would still help interest because the program hasn’t done that since 2004 and 2005. But short of winning the ACC Championship, the one thing that might jolt interest more than anything else is beating Virginia Tech.
It will take time to see what unfolds. In the meantime, progress continues with roster building and improving the quality of football on the field. If wins continue to come as well for UVA, then fan interest eventually will follow.