Tiger Stadium turns 90 this season, and the old gray lady on Nicholson Drive never looked grander.
She certainly has never loomed larger.
Years of renovations have recoated her exterior walls, replaced rusting dormitory windows, added dramatic lighting, improved the gates, fencing and walkways around the structure and beefed up the sound system within.
The crowning achievement: a nearly $80 million south end zone addition that bumps Tiger Stadium’s capacity from 92,542 to 102,321, though there are not really that many seats trained on what legendary Southern writer Willie Morris once described as “this terrain of old tumult” (more on that later).
The addition has given a layer cake look (some would say it’s starting to resemble a horseshoe like Ohio Stadium, but Les Miles would choke on that description) to the now mountainous south end of Tiger Stadium, the end where Billy Cannon started his run and Bert Jones threw his pass. If you’re an Ole Miss fan, you curse the very seats in which LSU’s visitors sit and still wonder where those four seconds went.
Another change: Fewer visitors section seats are wedged in around the entrance to an improved but still cramped visitors locker room that for such a vast structure represents submarine-like accommodations. Many of them have been moved to the new top layer of the cake in the south end zone, comparable hinterlands to which many Southeastern Conference teams have relegated the enemy.
Divide and conquer. It’s the ancient way, and it certainly won’t make Tiger Stadium any easier place to escape with a victory.
If you’re the visiting team, you’re lucky to escape with all your teeth.
The residents are an ornery bunch to deal with, and in the last four years Tiger Stadium has never been a tougher place in which to win.
LSU has won 27 of its last 28 home games, the only loss a still bitter 21-17 defeat by Alabama in 2012 that cost the Tigers a shot at the SEC title and quite possibly the chance to pulverize Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game as Bama did.
For decades, attending games at Tiger Stadium seemed like a responsibility of citizenship for many Louisianians. Like voting, except when given the choice between the ballot box and their sideline seats many Tiger fans over the years have opted for the latter.
One always envisions Tiger Stadium full and raucous, but it wasn’t always that way. There are attendance records in LSU’s media guide back to 1948, a season that lists 29,000 fans for a game with Rice and 25,000 for a game with Alabama in a stadium that then seated 46,000.
Of course, losing was often the culprit for low attendance back in the day; the Tigers were 3-7 that season.
These days, the challenges are multiple, and it often has little to do with the product on the terrain of old tumult.
One, it’s a hassle to get to and from a campus choked with over 100,000 revelers (many of whom don’t go for the game, just the party), a campus that doesn’t have direct interstate access.
Two, the non-conference home schedule is less than thrilling. LSU’s marquee non-con game was last Saturday in Houston against Wisconsin, a trend that’s certain to continue. After Saturday’s game with Sam Houston State, LSU plays UL-Monroe and New Mexico State out of conference. In 1979, LSU played out of conference against Colorado, USC and Florida State plus then annual rivalry games against Rice and Tulane.
Three, every single LSU game is on TV (has been since 2007). If you don’t want to deal with the traffic or the heat or the cold or the rain or the boorish drunk sitting next to you, you can watch the game in air-conditioned comfort on your 60-inch high-definition screen. And there are no lines for the bathroom.
Attendance numbers are always fictional in nature because schools can count tickets sold and every single person in the building, including those of us in the press box and those serving you a highly priced soft drink at the concession stand. LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said folks working the game are factored in to the 102,321 total capacity of Tiger Stadium, meaning there aren’t quite that many seats in the place. Some may say that’s not fair, but that’s the way the NCAA has allowed schools to count attendance for years.
Whoever you count in that number, recent attendance figures signal a problem for LSU. Average attendance peaked at 92,868 in 2011, dipped slightly to 92,626 in 2012 and again to 91,418 in 2013. For some games, even a blockbuster like Florida (a hot day game, granted), the actual attendance was clearly far less than the announced 92,980.
Schools like LSU are at a critical crossroads when it comes to football attendance. They embrace the TV exposure and welcome the multi-millions the new SEC Network (which will televise an LSU football game Saturday for the first time) will provide.
But LSU still needs, desperately, actual fannies in the seats to help balance what is now a $109 million athletic budget that gets zero subsidies from state funds or student fees.
To that end, LSU has made a concerted effort to improve the fan experience.
Aside from dressing up the stadium and improving routes two and from campus (Contraflow is back!) it has worked to improve restrooms and concessions. The new south end zone addition comes complete with two huge hi-def video replay screens that are so big they’re visible from the I-10 bridge over the Mississippi (hope they don’t cause a wreck). The north end zone video board has also been enlarged, and Alleva said 400 dishes have been added inside the stadium to improve cell phone coverage.
Most of the tickets have sold, despite a price increase. Kicking some visiting fans topside in the south end opened up more prime lower bowl seats, helping LSU sell a record 74,350 season tickets. Alleva said student tickets are also sold out, though still about 2,000 tickets remained Friday afternoon. According to LSU athletic ticket manager Brian Broussard, most of those are in the east upper deck visitors sections, with far fewer selling to Sam Houston than say an Ole Miss or Alabama.
“It’s incumbent on us to have our football players play in front of a full house,” Alleva said. “It helps us win and helps the persona of LSU football.
“Our goal is to keep that passion burning and keep them coming back.”
So they built it. And they improved it.
But will they come to fill up 102,321 seats and spaces in Tiger Stadium? And how long will they stay?
Sam Houston State at LSU
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Tiger Stadium
TV: SEC Network
StrokeStyle/$ID/ThickThickRADIO: WDGL-FM, 98.1; WWL-AM, 870; KMDL-FM, 97.3
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.