Duke Now

Duke football is winning and has a renovated stadium. But where are the fans?

Duke students at Wallace Wade Stadium cheer on the Blue Devils against Northwestern with sparse crowds around them. The school’s announced attendance for Saturday’s 41-17 win over the Wildcats was 20,241.
Duke students at Wallace Wade Stadium cheer on the Blue Devils against Northwestern with sparse crowds around them. The school’s announced attendance for Saturday’s 41-17 win over the Wildcats was 20,241. bthomas@heraldsun.com

Duke’s football program is off to a great start on the field with two wins in its first two weeks.

In the Wallace Wade Stadium stands, it’s a different story.

The school’s announced crowd for Saturday’s 41-17 win over Northwestern was 20,241.

That’s barely 50 percent of the stadium’s 40,004 seats filled on a sunny day against a Big Ten opponent. Duke had even offered $5 tickets to those who also donated to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

The Blue Devils’ 88-year-old football stadium underwent a three-year, $100 million renovation that started in 2014. Wallace Wade is now packed with new club seats and suites in the Blue Devil Tower, revamped concession stands and restrooms around the stadium, and blue chair back seats on both sides.

Despite that and Duke’s improved play on the field over the previous five seasons, the Blue Devils’ home crowds remain among the ACC’s worst. Duke drew 30,477 for its 60-7 season-opening win over N.C. Central on Sept. 2, its annual employee appreciation night. Free tickets were available to the about 37,000 people who work at the school and hospital system.

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Last season, Duke averaged 29,895 per game. That was Duke’s best season at the box office during its five-year run of successful seasons that started in 2012, when it made a bowl game for the first time since 1994.

Still, that left Duke next to last in attendance in the ACC only ahead of Wake Forest (26,456). In 2015, when the Blue Devils posted their third consecutive winning season, Duke’s average of 26,427 was last in the ACC. That season was played with stadium construction still ongoing.

Now in his 10th season at Duke, coach David Cutcliffe has recruited and coached well enough to make Duke a perennial bowl contender. The Blue Devils under Cutcliffe have been to four bowl games in the past five seasons, and in 2013 won the Coastal division and finished the season in the top 25. Cutcliffe has done so with a small but loyal fan base.

He’s happy with the fans that come. He’d just like to see more.

“We are always seeking bigger crowds,” Cutcliffe said. “Like most institutions our size we’d love to have 50,000 people in there. But from our energy, our fans, the loyalty of our fans, the enthusiasm of our students, is outstanding.”

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Duke’s Devon Edwards, middle, is embraced by teammate Deondre Singleton, right, after Edwards intercepted a pass by North Carolina’s Marquise Williams with less than two minutes to play in the fourth quarter, securing a 27-25 victory over UNC in 2013. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

As a private school with a far-flung alumni base, Duke faces an uphill battle to fill its stadium.

A year ago, when Duke played Wake Forest on the second weekend of the season, only 21,077 showed up. Duke’s largest crowds last season were against Virginia Tech (38,217) and North Carolina (39,212) when opposing fans were out on large force.

Because it’s a small private school (6609 undergrad students in 2016) as opposed to a state school with a large, local alumni base (UNC had 18,500 undergrads last year), Duke tries to turn Durham residents into season-ticket holders. The slogan “Bull City pride” is the main theme of Duke’s marketing campaign. Those living in the city of Durham’s zip code that starts with 277 can get four season tickets and T-shirts for $277. Parking in the general lots is free this season.

That campaign “has exceeded sales expectations,” Chris Alston, Duke’s director of football marketing, said via email. “The conversations Duke athletics representatives have had with community members at more than 30 local events the last three months have been invaluable in terms of spreading the word about the Duke football game day experience and opportunities to attend games.”

Duke quarterback Daniel Jones after the Blue Devils defeated Northwestern 41-17.

Alston said ticket sales for this Saturday’s game with Baylor are ahead of the Northwestern game. After that, Duke has ACC home games with top-25 teams Miami (Sept. 29) and Florida State (Oct. 14) as well as Coastal Division foes Pittsburgh (Oct. 21) and Georgia Tech (Nov. 18).

School officials are confident attendance will rise and the Northwestern game will be the low point.

“With five games remaining,” Alston said, “we are looking for attendance numbers to steadily increase as they did last year.”

Though last season’s 4-8 record was a disappointment, the Blue Devils are playing like they’ll be back in a bowl game this season. School officials are hoping the community comes out to support them in the stands.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

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