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Vols want to fill Neyland for Pittsburgh, but they’re likely to fall short of that goal

Tennessee’s players and coaches have mounted a campaign to fill Neyland Stadium to capacity for Saturday’s non-conference showdown with Pitt, but early returns indicate that the move is going to fall far short of its intended goal.

The need for a big and loud crowd for the Pitt game is an obvious one. The Panthers will come in as a solid, if not good, team. Many analysts point to this game as being the pivotal game of Tennessee’s season, which is the first under Josh Heupel. Win it, and the Vols could be on their way to a postseason bowl game. Lose it, and it would be an uphill battle to a bowl bid.

The pluses towards selling out Neyland Stadium are two-fold: the weather on Saturday looks to be perfect for an early September game, with sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 70s at kickoff. And this game is likely to be an exciting game, hardly the glorified scrimmage that Bowling Green was, or that Tennessee Tech will be. In fact, Pitt will enter as 3.5-point favorites over the Vols.

But there are negatives as well. Chief among them is that it’s a noon kickoff. It’s hard to sell out a noon start unless it’s against a marquee opponent (and marquee opponents usually garner mid-afternoon or primetime kickoffs). In its last three noon starts — with the exception of 2020, which was a season of limited attendance due to covid — Neyland Stadium has averaged just over 86,000 fans. The last time there was an exception was in 2017 — Butch Jones’ final season — when 95,324 showed up to see the Vols struggle against UMass. 

Kickoff times are determined by the TV networks that hold the rights to the game. CBS selects its game for the 3:30 p.m. slot first, after which ESPN picks games for its family of networks, including the SEC Network. Those kickoff times are usually 12 p.m., 12:30 p.m., 4 p.m. and primetime. The noon start time is considered the least available kickoff slot by many fans. Pregame traditions like the Vol Walk and the Pride of the Southland Band’s march to the stadium happen not long after breakfast time, and there is no time to tailgate or hit the sports bars before the game. However, struggling teams are normally less attractive for the networks, because they draw fewer viewers. Thus, as Tennessee’s struggles have increased over the years, the Vols have appeared in more noon time slots, because CBS is less likely to pick the Vols for the coveted 3:30 p.m. time slot, and ESPN doesn’t want to fill its primetime slots with a game that won’t be widely watched.

The biggest drawback to filling Neyland to capacity in recent years, though, hasn’t been start times so much as UT’s lack of success on the field. The average attendance has dropped significantly as the years separating the Vols from their last SEC Championship Game appearance in 2007 have increased. It hasn’t helped that the college football arms race — which means higher pay for coaches and millions of dollars spent on stadium renovations — has kept ticket prices going up. 

None of that stopped Heupel and his players from using social media to encourage fans to scoop up tickets for Saturday’s game, using hashtags like #FillNeyland and #102455, a reference to the official capacity of the Vols’ mammoth stadium.

But late Thursday, closing in on 36 hours from kickoff of Saturday’s game, thousands of tickets remained for sale through the UT Ticket Office.

As of late Thursday, there were 7,234 unsold seats in the upper deck of Neyland Stadium for Saturday’s game. Throw in the unsold seats in the lower bowl, and that number balloons to 12,187. That means if every seat that has been sold was filled, attendance would be somewhere around 90,000. 

But every sold seat won’t be filled. While Tennessee needs to sell 12,187 more tickets for the game to officially be a sell-out, filling the stadium to capacity also requires that the thousands of available tickets through scalpers and resell services also be purchased. Many fans purchase season tickets with the intent of keeping the tickets for marquee games and selling the rest, or they’re purchased by scalpers intent on reselling all of the tickets, though scalping isn’t nearly as popular as it once was due to the thousands of tickets that go unsold and drive down demand on any given gameday.

The resell service endorsed by the university is Vividseats, where tickets remained available in almost every section in the stadium — upper level and lower — as of late Thursday. While it’s difficult to ascertain how many tickets are available through the resell websites, groups of four tickets together were available throughout much of the stadium, an indication that there is an abundance of resell tickets available.

Schools — not just Tennessee — are notorious for over-stating announced attendance. Though Tennessee does not make public its methodology for determining attendance (there are no longer turnstiles at Neyland Stadium, but tickets are scanned digitally as fans enter), it’s likely based largely on tickets sold. That means that if it were a year when a marquee opponent like Alabama is scheduled to play at Neyland Stadium, especially if the Vols are expected to compete in that game, there might be thousands of empty seats against a lesser opponent and attendance still be announced at or near capacity — simply because tickets scooped up by season ticket holders wanting to attend the more important games remained unsold for the less attractive games.

Tennessee’s last official sellout was against Georgia in 2017, when 102,455 showed up to see the Bulldogs shut-out the Vols, 41-0, in the 3:30 p.m. time slot. That game was the beginning of the end of the Butch Jones era in Knoxville.

The Vols last drew in excess of 90,000 for a game in 2019, again against Georgia, when 92,709 were on hand for the Bulldogs’ 43-14 win in prime time.

The last time Tennessee drew more than 100,000 for a noon kickoff was in 2016, when 101,075 were on hand for the Vols’ 49-36 win over Kentucky. Additionally, the last time the Vols sold out a noon game was against Florida in 2014, when 102,455 were on hand for the Gators’ 10-9 win. That was the first time fans formed the human checkerboard effect inside the stadium.

Tickets to Saturday’s game can be purchased through the UT Ticket Office at allvols.com, starting at $45 and ranging up to $90, depending on location.

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