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The Arizona State football program remains wildly underwhelming in a variety of different ways. It’s a program with little national success that doesn’t appear to be headed in the right direction. So what separates the Sun Devils from top-tier programs like Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia and others?
The answer, in short, is everything. As someone who’s spent multiple seasons covering one of the most successful athletic programs in college sports history, it’s worth diving into the separation and what needs resolution.
Before covering Arizona State, I worked as a reporter covering Notre Dame football. The vast differences between the two programs extend well beyond the field, perhaps most notably in the stands. ASU fans have been criticized for decades now for their “lack of support” of the program. It’s not rare to attend an ASU football game with plenty of empty seats. In many cases, even seats filled at the start of the game are likely to grow bare by halftime.
Some could call that fair-weather fandom. Others might say the product doesn’t justify attendance. Neither answer is necessarily wrong. With that being said, a trip to South Bend, Indiana on a gameday looks much different.
Rain or shine, thousands of people from all over the county trek to South Bend to fill Notre Dame stadium. The loyalty in South Bend is truly unlike any other. A simple trip to the gas station or local market, and you won’t go without seeing bright green and hearing a “Go Irish” on your way out.
In fact, there are stores dedicated to strictly selling old Notre Dame memorabilia just a few minutes from Notre Dame stadium.
Before we take a full-fledged leap into the fandom of these two football programs, let the record show that Sun Devil stadium holds a capacity of 53,599. Notre Dame stadium sits at a capacity of 80,795.
“The Irish have played in front of sellout crowds at Notre Dame Stadium in 249 consecutive games and 297 of the last 298 home contests have been held before capacity crowds,” it reads on the University of Notre Dame website. “Every home game starting with the final two home dates in 1964 has been a sellout except one – a 1973 Thanksgiving Day matchup with Air Force. Notre Dame has played 449 games inside Notre Dame Stadium and compiled a 335-109-5 record (.752).”
The argument of Notre Dame having been around much longer, thus allowing for a more loyal fanbase, is simply untrue. Only 10 years separate the birth of the Notre Dame (1887) and Arizona State (1897) football programs. That’s plenty of time for the Sun Devils to figure out a working system.
Any Sun Devil alum who’s been to ASU football games over the last handful of years can tell you just how empty the stadium feels sometimes. Again, part of that is the product, and some of it may even be the stadium itself. Despite being renovated from 2014-19, it’s still a rather lackluster place to spend a Saturday night compared to stadiums across the country.
Not to mention, the enrollment numbers at the two universities should favor Arizona State in terms of putting butts in seats. ASU’s total enrollment across its campuses pushes nearly 78,000 students. Notre Dame, on the other hand, sits below 9,000 undergraduate students, yet the university finds a way to fill more than double the seating at its football games.
The Irish fans I’ve encountered would quite literally watch their team on the moon if that’s the only place they could see Notre Dame play. It may feel borderline cultish at times, but that’s not just an Irish football thing; that’s the case with mid-tier programs I’ve covered on a minor basis, including Florida State, Wisconsin and others.
To be frank about it, ASU fans simply don’t care enough to make the football program consistently part of their lives again. They shouldn’t be blamed though, because as we’ve seen for many years, the program doesn’t justify that level of support.
Since 2000, the Sun Devils have had 12 seasons with a record above .500 and 148 total wins. In three of those 12 seasons, they were only a game above .500.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, has accumulated 16 seasons with a record above .500 for 183 total wins during the same time span. Winning in the regular season is a big part of building hype around the local community and fanbase to attend games.
The other part of winning is doing so in bowl games. The Irish have won six of their 17 bowl-game appearances during that span, while the Sun Devils have won five of their 15 bowl games. Unfortunately, those bowl appearances feature mid-level teams for the Sun Devils, while Notre Dame is usually playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
All of those contributing factors lead to national attention in the AP Top 25 poll — a poll Notre Dame has finished the season in 12 times since 2000. The Sun Devils have reached that accomplishment just four times during that time span.
This itself is a critique of the program, not the fans. The fans are deserving of a product they want to go see week in and out. Instead, as the numbers show, ASU fans have been left to watch average football at best.
The mediocre teams and the lack of fan loyalty shows up in ways the university is well aware of: revenue and profit.
Back in 2019, Forbes reported that Notre Dame football brought in a three-year average of $120 million in revenue (No. 8 in the nation). The report also showed the Irish football program raking in $76 million in profit.
To put that revenue number in perspective, in 2019 Fortune 500 reported that the company Kroger did $121.1 million in revenue.
Arizona State, on the flip side of the coin, accumulated $39 million in total revenue but only $12.7 million in profit, according to College Factual. The university is missing out on a large sum because of the fact that they don’t invest in their athletic programs –– specifically the football team. It’s redundant at this point, but fans are the lifeblood to any great football program. You can’t build fandom with a worn-down stadium and average-quality football games.
Fans will come when the program shifts to a winning culture. It’s an aspect of football that has grown dramatically over the last decade, but recruiting is where the change starts.
Unfortunately for Sun Devil nation, the current regime has put the future of the program in a horrendous situation. As it stands today, Arizona State football has the No. 82 recruiting class for 2023, according to 247 Sports.
To keep consistent with our comparison, Notre Dame has the No. 1 recruiting class for 2023, per 247 Sports. This is without even mentioning that the Irish are headed into the 2022 season with a head coach in Marcus Freeman who’s coached just one game at the helm of the program.
The Sun Devils are in murky waters with the ongoing NCAA investigation alleging that coach Herm Edwards and various other coaches violated recruiting dead-period rules.
The expectation is that the findings won’t be released for quite some time, perhaps the summer of 2023. That’s where Sun Devil fans are left. As one of the largest public institutions in the world, the fans are clearly there, but what do they have to support?
Arizona State features a football program under investigation, an average stadium, lackluster play and one of the FBS’ weakest recruiting classes.
To quote Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” But that’s the problem: The current athletic department headlined by athletic director Ray Anderson isn’t building much of anything.
If Sun Devil alumni want to really be in conversation among the powerhouse programs across the country, they’ll need to start from the ground up at some point.
It sounds easy, but a new stadium goes a long way to getting recruits. A football team with developed recruits and players can build a culture that is greatly lacking in Tempe, which was made evident in the recent offseason.
A stadium, highly-touted recruits and veteran players usually contributes to wins. That’s the recipe to any great, dominant football program. It’s worked for the Alabamas, the Ohio States and the Notre Dames.
However, as it stands in June 2022, Arizona State is miles away from even hanging on the coattails of those storied programs. The good news is that it’s never too late to start.
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