Pitt's efforts to fill, energize student section slow to gain traction
Penn State's Beaver Stadium houses the “S Zone” in what is regarded as one of the best student sections in college football. West Virginia boasts the Mountaineer Maniacs at rowdy Milan Puskar Stadium.
And then there's the Panther Pitt.
The reinvented student section for Pitt football games is drawing mixed results in its first season aimed at improving the environment at Heinz Field on fall Saturdays.
Since moving into the 65,050-seat stadium in 2001, Pitt has struggled to generate enthusiasm in its student section that is found at other major Division I programs.
“We saw with (basketball's) the Oakland Zoo that we have the ability,” said Pitt senior Gordon Louderback, whose efforts helped rejuvenate the Panther Pitt student section in the north end zone. “We thought, ‘Why can't we carry that over into football?' ”
Pitt sold out its allotment of 10,000 student season tickets for the third consecutive year, and with T-shirts as part of the deal, the Panther Pitt section provides a unified navy blue-clad fan base.
But plenty of empty yellow seats remain, and students continue to stream out of Heinz Field following the traditional singing of “Sweet Caroline” at the end of the third quarter.
The students leave early to avoid the long lines for the buses that return them to the Oakland campus. Louderback said the Panther Pitt organization has worked with the university to improve bus schedules, pickup locations and signage this year, but the embarrassing fourth-quarter departures persist.
“We are investigating ways to counteract that exodus,” said Pitt's Justin Acierno, director of marketing and ticket operations. “It's a dynamic that we get them excited enough to get them to the game. We need to try to keep them there.”
Heading into Saturday's game against No. 21 Rutgers — the final home game of 2012 — Pitt's average announced attendance for home games this season is 42,036, or one empty seat for every two occupied. And the Panther Pitt, for many reasons, will likely never approach the student swarms at Ohio State or Florida.
But at less than $5 per game ($25 for six home games), Pitt's student season-ticket package is among the most affordable in the FBS. Other offers fluctuate greatly. Defending champion Alabama's cost $35, or $5 per game. Penn State's are $218 for seven games and Notre Dame $230 for six games.
“Our students carry the energy of the entire stadium,” said Penn State's Greg Myford, associate athletic director of business relations and communications. “The energy they bring is contagious. It's easier and fun to be enthusiastic when everyone around us is.”
Failures of the past
So how many students can get into the stadium in the first place? The student ticket allotment at FBS schools typically ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent of the stadium's capacity.
Allotments at Penn State and West Virginia are about 20 percent of capacity. Pitt is near the lower end, with students getting 15.4 percent of capacity.
Pitt, like some other schools such as West Virginia, oversells its student section. The university sells 10,000 general admission tickets for an 8,500-seat student section at Heinz Field. Acierno said if the lower level Panther Pitt and the four upper level overflow sections are full, students are permitted to sit in empty seats in other sections.
“It's based on the capacity,” Acierno said. “We'd like to get to a point where we can't oversell the students because everything else is sold.”
Pitt has made efforts to unify its student section over the years — mostly with little success. There was the “12th-man” concept at Pitt Stadium in the late 1990s, with the large inflatable jersey No. 12 above the student section, renamed Section 12, in the newly repainted stadium.
With the move to Heinz Field in 2001, the “Aero-Zone” — in association with the Panthers' sideline apparel provider, Aeropostale — was an exclusive on-field 200-person student section.
Later, in 2007, navy blue T-shirts were handed out as part of “Code Blue,” in an attempt to coordinate the colors worn by the students.
Even the original Panther Pitt, a football spirit group formed in 2003 by then-Pitt students Robin Frank and Julie Brennan, faded away.
The rebirth of the Panther Pitt was the work of the Student Government Board's Traditions Committee.
Pitt senior J.D. Schroeder, a member of the Traditions Committee and vice president of the Oakland Zoo, the nationally recognized student section at Peterson Events Center, has faith. He said social media connections show the excitement in the rejuvenated Panther Pitt.
“In general, the response has been awesome,” he said. “We started the first week in August, and we already have almost 3,000 followers on Twitter. It took the Zoo almost two years to reach that number.”
The original Panther Pitt also witnessed rapid growth, soaring from a mailing list of 20 people to one of the biggest organizations on campus, Frank said. Interest began to wane as the team went 16-19 from 2005-07 under Dave Wannstedt.
Frank, 30, a Downtown attorney, recalls how her successor as Panther Pitt president, Lindsey Sorber, had trouble finding student volunteers to carry the Hail to Pitt flag at the stadium, help pump up the inflatable helmet outside the student union or hand out T-shirts and rally towels.
“(Sorber) was really having a tough time getting people involved,” Frank said. “It was like pulling teeth. Trying to get someone out of bed at 7 in the morning for a team that's 1-5, they are not feeling it.”
Pitt fifth-year receiver Cam Saddler said the student environment this year is the best since 2009. He added if he scores a touchdown in the north end zone Saturday, he likely will do a version of the “Lambeau Leap,” even if it draws a 15-yard penalty.
“If I get in that end zone, I'm liable to get a little bit of yellow thrown on me,” he said. “I already warned (coach Paul Chryst), so he knows. He's not OK with it. I'll still get yelled at, but at least I dropped a little atom bomb first.”
John Grupp is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.