By 5 p.m. Friday, a line of purple-and-gold clad fans will stretch from the gates of LSU’s Alex Box Stadium and weave through a parking lot full of gumbo-cooking and beer-drinking tailgaters.
Gates will open, and fans will pour into one of the nation’s most plush college baseball parks.
They will buy thousands of game-day programs, consume hundreds of hotdogs and roar their approval when the season’s first rendition of “Calling Baton Rouge” blares from the speakers.
It might just be the best atmosphere and biggest crowd for any college baseball season opener in the nation.
But it won’t be full.
LSU’s season-opening game against Kansas on Friday night is a sellout. In fact, most of the Tigers’ 15 home Southeastern Conference games have just standing-room-only tickets remaining, and the school has led the nation — by a wide margin — in ticket sales for 19 consecutive years.
The problem: Getting these ticket-purchasing fans — predominantly the 9,000-plus season ticket-holders — into seats.
LSU averaged 5,404 fans per game during the regular season last year, according to a compilation of actual attendance figures. That’s the lowest in the six seasons Alex Box Stadium has been open.
The school averaged 6,039 fans per weekend game last year. That’s about 800 fewer than the previous season and 600 below the average for actual weekend attendance over the previous five years.
Only once did LSU have 9,000 or more at a game in 2014. Fans broke the 9,000 mark 14 times from 2009-2013.
“It was a little bit down,” said Eric Hummel, LSU’s assistant manager for ticket operations overseeing baseball. “The weather didn’t cooperate.”
Last year may have been an anomaly of sorts. The Tigers had nearly a dozen games affected by weather during a winter that dragged through March and an April full of rain.
There are other factors, too.
Offense in baseball has plummeted to new lows since the NCAA switched to the new bats — stripped of a larger sweet spot in 2011. The governing body approved the use of a new ball for this season that’s expected to reignite offense and bring balance to the game.
Will more home runs help actual attendance at the Box? Maybe.
“There’s no question that the games aren’t as lively as they once were because of the amount of offense,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “I’m sure that affects things.”
Offense, weather, even traffic — they’re all keeping away a good chunk of season ticket-holders every year. That leaves Alex Box’s grandstands — all season ticketholders — partially empty in many games, even some nationally televised SEC duels.
Take for instance last year. LSU sold a record 9,302 season tickets — up about 1,500 from the 2009 season — but had an average actual crowd of nearly 4,000 (or 40 percent) less than that.
What’s happening to all of these unused tickets? Some — but not enough — are up for sale on the school’s official resale site, the LSU ticket marketplace, Hummel said.
More than 15,000 LSU baseball season tickets were resold on the website last season, he said.
“We still don’t have the entire fan base using it yet,” Hummel said. “We’ve got a good percentage. We need more fans taking part in that.”
The school also offers electronic ticket forwarding. This allows a season ticket-holder to electronically send their tickets to friends or family members.
LSU has done something else for the first time in school history: It has capped season tickets.
It stopped selling this year at 9,208, turning back several on a waiting list, Hummel said. It gives the school 100 more tickets to sell on game days.
Alex Box seats 10,326, excluding standing-room-only sections. The school reserves about 300-500 for students and about 300-500 seats for individual game tickets. The other 200-300 seats are reserved for the families of players and coaches and the visiting team, which gets about 75 tickets per game.
While LSU’s average actual attendance slumped last season, its paid average attendance continues to rise and lead the country. It averaged 10,880 last year in paid attendance.
The next best was Arkansas at 8,235.
Heck, LSU’s actual attendance number of 5,404 last year would have ranked seventh nationally on the paid rankings. Schools don’t normally release actual attendance figures, but LSU is transparent in that department, announcing an actual crowd for each game.
The Tigers begin this season Friday ranked in the top five in at least four preseason polls.
They have one of the best shortstops in the nation in Alex Bregman, one of the fastest outfields with All-SEC selections Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird, and a handful of young, talented pitchers who were part of the No. 1-ranked 2014 signing class.
Oh, and there’s that new ball, too, expected to fly about 20-30 feet farther.
So will fans fill up the Box this year?
That might depend on the temperature.
“The biggest factor is weather,” said Chris Guillot, a longtime season ticket-holder who says he’s missed just three home game since 1986. “That’s uncontrollable. Hopefully the new ball will put butts in the seats.
“If you can bring the excitement, they will come.”
The forecasted temperature at first pitch Friday: 49 degrees. Bundle up.
Actual regular season attendance figures
Avgerage per game...............5,404.....5,985.....5,660.....6,163.....6,247.....5,749
Avg. per weeknd game.........6,039.....6,822.....6,256.....6,796....6,791.....6,343
Avg. per midweek game.......3,816.....4,006.....4,049.....4,451.....4,723.....4,653
Games of 9,000-plus............1..............4.............0.............5............2............3
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.