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Random Thoughts Following UCLA's Non-Conference Schedule
It's long and meandering for sure!
I should note up front that I did not go to this game like I had the first two games. It was a friend’s birthday and we went to Las Vegas to celebrate. That said, I still sat at the Cosmopolitan pool and watched most of this game live, so I do have some general thoughts to get out before I get to the rewatch and Eye Test later this week.
I will warn you, these are pretty scattered, and I am making no attempt at drawing a coherent through-line for it all.
Let’s start with the big topic of the weekend: attendance.
This is the third week in a row that UCLA has become a college football news topic thanks to poor attendance at the Rose Bowl, and the second year in a row that early-season attendance has been a topic of conversation. Former UCLA Bruin Troy Aikman was the one who really amplified the problem when he called out the problem on his Twitter feed.
Even before getting into the factors at play, this is not a good look. The announced crowd of 29,344 is the second-lowest in UCLA’s Rose Bowl history, only better than the 27,143 that showed up for the season opener against Bowling Green. Unfortunately, it fits into the trend that has hit UCLA in recent times. Here’s a graph of UCLA’s average attendance since 2011, along with their win-loss record in each of those years.
I actually thought to go back further and get more numbers to illustrate this point. For example:
2010 saw a 4-8 UCLA team with only one non-conference home game average over 60,000 a game.
Karl Dorrell’s last season in 2007 saw an average of 76,379. Though that number was likely buoyed by non-conference home games against BYU and Notre Dame, the biggest attendance number was still the UC Berkeley game at 83,494 in attendance.
The last time I could find UCLA even close to the Chip Kelly-era numbers was in 1999 when the Bruins followed up their last Rose Bowl appearance with a 4-8 season where they averaged 49,829 a game (the non-conference games that year were Boise State and Fresno State).
The point here is that the attendance drop in recent years is unprecedented in UCLA history, and also happens to coincide with the worst stretch of football in UCLA history. As much as I’m sure some fans would like to blame COVID restrictions on a depressed turnout in 2021, it’s still not that far removed from the 2019 season that had an even-worse turnout.
Kirk Herbstreit chimed in later with a statement that “Chip and the players deserve better” and it became increasingly obvious what was going on. UCLA fans have had to endure one of the worst four-year stretches in program history, and yet the media is starting to pin this on the fans rather than the program itself. It is unsurprising to say the least - after all, Chip Kelly has a lot of friends at ESPN and the media from his time as an analyst - but it is still a public problem that the athletic department now has to try and solve.
There’s a weird thing that happens in sports where there's a belief that teams deserve your support. That the fanbase in a place like Nebraska is morally superior because they continue to sell out their stadium despite years of poor product. I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth. Programs are not owed your support, and it is in fact perfectly reasonable to not support a team with your money if the product being provided is not up to a certain standard.
This has always been true in Los Angeles, where the wealth of entertainment options has long created a situation where fans will stay away if they do not feel a certain standard is being met, and the LA teams in general seem to understand this concept well. The Dodgers have led the league in attendance every year since 2013, coinciding with their run of dominance in the NL West. The Lakers know that star power has always been their key for driving fan support, so they make sure to always spend the money on big-name players. Even the NFL teams have spent the money to put the best possible product on the field.
LA fans can smell a bad product, and even the fast start this year and solid record last year have not masked the fact that this is currently a bad product. Aikman was forced to allude to that fact in his tweet, mentioning that the team played poorly and it was not surprising to see that level of attendance as a result. UCLA is stuck in neutral while other teams in the Pac-12 have gotten noticeably better. Southern Cal looks like a College Football Playoff dark horse. Same with Washington under a new head coach. Arizona looks much improved in its second year under Jedd Fisch. Oregon State has improved, Utah is still Utah, and Stanford is at least trying something interesting. The only programs that have taken a noticeable step back are the tire fires at Colorado and Arizona State. After this past Saturday, the preseason belief that UCLA will go 9-3 on the season feels more and more like a sick joke; 7-5 is a more likely outcome at the moment.
You can point to a host of other factors for the poor attendance as well - school hasn’t started yet, the early start times, lack of a name-brand opponent, ticket prices not in line with the quality of opponent, lack of in-stadium and game-day experience - but at the end of the day, it’s the product on the field that is the biggest problem. UCLA has not generated a good product since 2015, and fans are speaking out. Or rather, not showing up at all.
Let’s quickly talk about another side bit that came up as a result of Aikman’s tweet: the long-elusive dream of an on-campus stadium.
Every fanbase has its white rabbit, and this one is clearly one for UCLA fans, who believe that one of the problems plaguing fan engagement is the lack of an on-campus stadium like the vast majority of programs have.
The argument does hold some merit. The Rose Bowl is an imperfect solution in its current form; the stadium is far from campus and probably too big for UCLA to consistently fill to capacity even when the program is thriving. An on-campus stadium at a smaller size would be easier to fill and would drive increased student engagement, which is the lifeblood for creating long-term supporters of UCLA athletics.
There are, as usual, multiple hurdles that would need to be overcome. The biggest, of course, would be location; Drake Stadium makes the most sense as an on-campus option, but would require a huge amount of reconfiguration to the surrounding area to make something in the 55-60k range feasible. The VA land opposite the 405 presents similar issues, especially when it comes to making a deal for the land with the VA. A friend brought up the Westwood Park land, but again you are dealing with a federal building right to the north. Parking will be an issue in all spots, as would traffic flow. Oh yeah, and you have to deal with the surrounding neighborhoods, which already have an extensive history on fighting UCLA at every turn.
I’m of the opinion that building an on-campus stadium is theoretically possible, but would require a level of institutional commitment and drive that UCLA has never truly shown in history. That is starting to change - the move to the Big Ten is proof in and of itself that UCLA is positioning itself to remain as a major player in college athletics - but you’d have to get major stakeholders all onboard. The fact that Aikman mentioned an on-campus stadium is itself interesting, as he’s one of the more influential voices among those stakeholders, and this gets an on-campus stadium push into the media (Ben Bolch acknowledged the statement in his Monday notes column, for example). Still, this is still a decades-long fight that will need to take place, and who knows which decision-maker will still be around in that time.
This is probably an offseason/summer project to tackle, but I will say I had a lot of fun doing some Blue Sky thinking on how this would work.
Maybe I should talk about the game for a little bit?
Like I said, I’ll have more in the Eye Test, so I don’t want to get too bogged down in specifics here, but what stood out to me was the line play.
Offensive line play was inoffensive for the game. You like the fact that they only allowed a single tackle for loss on the entire game, but the Bruins only averaged 3.9 yards per carry against a middle-of-the-pack Sun Belt team. That’s not ideal, even considering that feature back Zach Charbonnet was limited. UCLA is going to play defensive lines with more talent going forward, and if the Bruins are struggling with the Jaguars, I fear what will happen against Utah and Oregon.
Defensive line, however, was the biggest issue, as they got absolutely worked by South Alabama’s offensive front. Their lone TFL on the day came on the fake field goal, and in general the group looked to lack in depth. This isn’t shocking in hindsight; after all, the Bruins have bled defensive line depth for years, including watching multiple defensive linemen flip to the offensive line to try and paper over holes on that side. But it really looks like the talent that remains is lacking, with no signs of help on the way. The only defensive lineman who looked competent in this game was Laiatu Latu, the former four-star from Washington.
I have a rather mean point to make on the defense in general, so I apologize in advance. UCLA is relying on a lot of transfers to have a big impact, but look at where these players are coming from. Darius Muasau is coming from Hawaii. Azizi Hearn played at Wyoming. Jacob Sykes from Harvard. The Murphy twins from North Texas. All good players, no doubt, but players who were excelling at the Group of 5 level against G5 competition. Seeing these players all struggle against a Sun Belt team, which in general has a second-highest talent level of the G6 after the AAC, does not feel that shocking.
Again, this gets at the larger issues regarding talent acquisition under Chip Kelly. Talent acquisition is the name of the game at the college level, and Kelly has never truly understood that concept. The transfer portal has only served to mask these issues, but the defensive failures in this game could be the first of many instances of that mask slipping and revealing the folly of the strategy.
See you all for the Eye Test.