The late-morning sun was starting its slow, steady ascent over the old stadium.
A crowd that may not have filled the Pauley Pavilion, let alone the Rose Bowl, fanned out for protection from the relentless glare.
Some fans found slivers of shade near the top of the bowl, thanks to the trees lining the stadium’s outer edge. Others crowded into seats under the Terry Donahue Pavilion, their own dark oasis.
Fortunately, there wasn’t much competition for pick points.
Attendance, the scarlet “A” of UCLA’s football program under head coach Chip Kelly, continued a historic dip Saturday during the Bruins’ season opener.
The announced crowd of 27,143 represented an all-time low for the team since it moved to the Rose Bowl before the 1982 season. Explanations for the low turnout may have outweighed the fan base.
It was too hot. The kick-off took place before noon. Bowling Green wasn’t the most exciting opponent. The students weren’t in class, so they didn’t come.
The die-hards weren’t keen to show up either, given the conditions.
“Nobody is going to miss out on a 104-degree day to see an average Bruin game against a team they’ve never heard of unless the Bruins are in the top 10 in the country,” said Todd Nathanson, who held the season tickets. since 1998, the last time UCLA played in the Rose Bowl game.
Nathanson, who missed the game because he was out of town, saw many sparse crowds at the start of the season. He suggested the crowd likely wouldn’t increase unless UCLA went 5-0 before taking on Utah in early October.
“As much as we complain about the location and the stadium and this and that,” Nathanson said, “if the team is winning, the fans show up. Los Angeles is a fickle city, we all know that.”
In fact, attendance reflects some consistency since Kelly’s arrival ahead of the 2018 season. In both good and bad seasons, Bruins fans tend to stay home.
UCLA’s average home attendance last season, when the team briefly captured the nation’s attention with a riveting win over Louisiana State and finished 8-4, was just 45,818, the second-lowest number in its 40 seasons at the Rose Bowl.
And the lowest? That was in 2019 when the Bruins averaged 43,848 at 4-8. It may seem hard to believe, but it wasn’t too long ago that UCLA set a school attendance record with head coach Jim Mora, drawing an average of 76,650 in 2014.
UCLA would not disclose the number of season tickets sold for 2022 or the renewal rate starting in 2021, a school spokesperson said, citing proprietary reasons. The school had released this information for previous seasons in 2019.
Stadium updates that include modern scoreboards, better student seating, a pre-game DJ, and accelerated entry have not significantly influenced fans.
Audiences will undoubtedly suffer this season as a result of Michigan pulling out of a game that was scheduled for this weekend and the Bruins’ game against Washington on September 30 falling on Friday night because of schedule requirements from the Pac-12 Conference.
Those yearning for the construction of an on-campus stadium or a move to Sofi Stadium should likely abandon those hopes – UCLA’s Rose Bowl contract runs until June 30, 2044 and does not include an opt-out clause.
The sparse crowd on Saturday sparked some teasing in national media and on forums, with one fan joking on Bruin Report Online that the game could have been played on campus at 11,700-seat Drake Stadium.
“Obviously it’s a little disappointing because, you know, we’re trying to provide the best showcase for as many people as possible,” Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said of the crowd. “But we try not to worry too much about it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really affect how we play. We have to go out there and win the game anyway. We know they’re watching us, still supporting us, so it’s all love at the end of the day for sure.”
To be fair, UCLA’s fall reflects a national decline in college football attendance. The average crowd among 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision was 39,848 in 2021, the lowest since 1981.
But Bruins fans should cast a jealous look around town to see a fuller house. Facing similar heat and a similarly unnamed opponent – albeit with a full contingent of students in the stands – USC tied 60,113 at the Coliseum for their debut against Rice in Trojans coach Lincoln Riley’s debut.
Afterwards, Riley sounded like he was just getting started in his efforts to sell the place.
“We’re going to keep working,” Riley said, “until people can’t even bear the thought of not going to a USC football game.”
Meanwhile, Kelly thanked fans who braved triple-digit heat at the Rose Bowl and said he wasn’t worried about a slump in attendance, considering the trajectory of a show that has maintained its longest winning streak since its arrival.
“Our job is to play football,” Kelly said, “so we won our last four. … I think everything is going in the right direction.”
That’s enough? Sam Andress, a longtime UCLA fan who attended his first Rose Bowl game at age 3 in 1984, cited Kelly’s lack of involvement with donors among the factors that made him give up his season tickets after Kelly’s first season.
Last month, Andress said he attended a preseason feast on campus that was low on energy. There was no fight music played, there were no eight claps. The coaches spoke for about 10 minutes combined.
“Chip doesn’t seem to care about fans, donors and alumni,” Andress said before referring to a notoriously rude coach who won six national championships in Alabama. “So to me, it’s like if you don’t earn at the level of Nick Saban, so you can’t not be interested in fans and donors who are paying for your show.”
Asked if there were more things he could do to promote his show, such as attending booster events or becoming active on social media, Kelly said: “We don’t have any booster events that have been recommended. We always struggle at the beginning of the year, no matter where you are, because we don’t have students on campus, so we don’t start classes until the end of the month, so that’s always been a problem.”
Andress was among those who attended the opening, getting two seats in a suite for less than $100 each so he could keep his 2-year-old son Zeke in air-conditioned comfort for his first game at UCLA.
Capacity at the Rose Bowl was reduced to 53,390 this season after a second canvas cover was added to match that of the opposite end zone. The school’s spokesperson said the tarps could be removed if necessary, based on ticket demand and other factors.
Another small crowd is expected this weekend as the Bruins (1-0) face off against a school in the Alabama State Football Championship (2-0) for the first time. UCLA is favored by 50½ points, making on-field drama unlikely, save for a halftime show with the Mighty Marching Hornets, the state of Alabama’s decorated band.
Temperatures are forecast to hit the lows in the mid-1980s, with a chance of rain, providing a respite from the scorching heat of the previous week. For UCLA fans tired of seeing an almost empty Rose Bowl, the biggest relief may come with bigger crowds later in the season.
“I think this team can do some good things this year,” Nathanson said, “and hopefully at the SC game, there will be 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl like there should be.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.