Pitt football attendance has taken many jabs for decades, but as I'm about to show, not only are there good reasons why Pitt's attendance is where it is, but also that the attendance is where it should be.
For the most part, the biggest factors in determining college football attendance are whether or not your program is the team in the area, a large number of people in the area, including students, and on field success.
Average Attendance of BCS Programs in Cities with a Strong Pro Sports Presence
1. USC 73,196
2. UCLA 70,285
3. Washington 68,769
4. Arizona State 62,689
5. Miami 53,837
6. Stanford 50,726
7. Pittsburgh 49,741
8. California 49,329
9. Georgia Tech 49,077
10. Minnesota 47,797
11. TCU 43,598
12. Northwestern 39,307
13. Colorado 38,463
14. South Florida 34,702
15. Boston College 33,006
16. Cincinnati 31,771
1. USC 13 million
1. UCLA 13 million
3. Northwestern 9.5 million
4. TCU 6.7 million
5. Miami 5.7 million
6. Georgia Tech 5.5 million
7. Boston College 4.6 million
8. California 4.5 million
8. Stanford 4.5 million
10. Arizona State 4.3 million
11. Washington 3.5 million
12. Minnesota 3.4 million
13. South Florida 2.8 million
14. Colorado 2.6 million
15. Pittsburgh 2.4 million
16. Cincinnati 2.1 million
Main Campus Enrollment
1. Arizona State 59,794
2. Minnesota 51,853
3. South Florida 47,646
4. Washington 42,907
5. UCLA 41,812
6. USC 39,958
7. California 35,899
8. Cincinnati 33,329
9. Colorado 31,702
10. Pittsburgh 28,766
11. Georgia Tech 21,557
12. Northwestern 19,219
13. Stanford 15,877
14. Miami 15,657
15. Boston College 14,359
16. TCU 9,725
Top 25 Final Ranking in Last Ten Years
1. USC 8
2. TCU 6
3. Boston College 4
3. Cincinnati 4
3. Stanford 4
6. Miami FL 3
6. Arizona State 3
6. California 3
9. Georgia Tech 2
9. Pittsburgh 2
9. UCLA 2
12. Minnesota 1
12. Northwestern 1
12. Washington 1
15. Colorado 0
15. South Florida 0
If you combine these factors, this is where the attendance of each should rank, and where they do rank. I combined the ranking of the three previous categories (metro population, enrollment, success). The number to the right of their name if the combined rank. For instance, USC is 1st, 1st, and 6th, which gives them a score of 8. The lower the number, the higher the score in this case.
1. USC 8 - What they actually rank: 1
2. UCLA 15 - What they actually rank: 2
3. Arizona State 17 - What they actually rank: 4
4. California 21 - What they actually rank: 8
5. TCU 22 - Where they actually rank: 11
6. Stanford 24 - Where they actually rank: 6
7. Boston College 25 - Where they actually rank: 16
7. Miami 25 - Where they actually rank: 5
9. Georgia Tech 26 - Where they actually rank: 9
9. Minnesota 26 - Where they actually rank: 10
11. Washington 27 - Where they actually rank: 3
11. Cincinnati 27 - Where they actually rank: 16
11. Northwestern 27 - Where they actually rank: 12
14. South Florida 31 - Where they actually rank: 14
15. Pittsburgh 34 - Where they actually rank: 7
16. Colorado 38- Where they actually rank: 13
As you can see, this formula proves to be pretty accurate since the attendance of most schools match up with where they are expected to rank. There are three schools that seem to be underachieving- TCU, Boston College, and Cincinnati. But both TCU and Boston College have extremely small enrollment, which easily explains that. Cincinnati, however, has no excuse.
There are also two schools that averaged significantly higher than where they were expected. Washington should be 11th, but they are actually 3rd in attendance. That number is slightly skewed by the fact that they haven't been very successful on the field in the last decade. But they historically have had a lot of success, and when combined with a large population, a large student body, and just two pro sports teams, it's obvious why their attendance is so high. The other, more impressive overachiever is Pittsburgh, who hasn't had great on field success for decades, has a comparatively small population for a major city, and doesn't have a huge student population.
To be specific, and why it's even more impressive for Pitt, is that Pittsburgh has the smallest metro population of any area that has three major professional sports teams. That means it's difficult enough to sustain three pro sports teams (and three popular ones at that), not to mention a major college football program too.
Attendance being limited by being in a pro sports area can not be overstated. USC has had huge success on the field, 13 million people to draw from, and no NFL team providing competition, yet they still only draw 73,196 a game, which is roughly 30,000 less than what the best college towns draw. That number is also 20,000 below capacity for their stadium.
There are a few examples of how Pitt has actually done well in attendance. Arizona State has the most students on their main campus of anybody in the country with 60,000 students. They also have 4.3 million people in the metro area. Both numbers are double, or more than double, than Pitt, yet the Sun Devils average only 13,000 more fans per game.
Another example is Minnesota, who has 3.4 million people in the metro area, one million more than Pittsburgh, and 52,000 students on their main campus, twice that of Pittsburgh. Despite those advantages, the Golden Gophers average roughly 47,000 fans a game, less than the Panthers.
Highly regarded statistician Nate Silver wrote an article for the New York Times in which he determined how many fans each program had. Pitt was ranked No. 37 in the country with over 800,000 fans.
The five programs with the most fans were Ohio State (3.1 million), Michigan (2.9 million), Penn State (2.6 million), Notre Dame (2.3 million), and Texas (2.2 million). Notre Dame is the school that Catholics around the country follow so their popularity is obvious. The other four are a perfect storm for huge attendance.
All four have huge success, mostly because they have the money, through attendance, to have huge budgets. But one can easily see how they got those huge attendance numbers in the first place.
Ohio State only has the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets as competition, and clearly that's not much competition at all. The Blue Jackets formed in 1997, long after the Buckeyes had the area dominated. Columbus also has a metro population of nearly 2 million people, almost as much as Pittsburgh. Imagine if Pitt and the Penguins were the only two teams in Pittsburgh. No Pirates, no Steelers. If that's not enough, Ohio State also has over 57,000 students on the main campus, twice what Pitt has. That means not only a large number of current students, but also a large number of alumni.
Michigan is very similar. They are just 45 minutes from Detroit, which is close enough to visit games, but with an attendance of over 100,000, they are a a large college town. The Detroit metro area has 4.3 million people in it, double that of Pittsburgh. If that's not enough Michigan has 43,000 students on the main campus, and they are believed to have the most living alumni in the country. That's how you routinely fill up the biggest football stadium, college or pro, in the country.
Texas is in Austin, which has over 1.8 million people in the metro area, and no professional sports teams. That alone will make the Longhorns football program popular. But then throw in an enrollment of over 52,000 and you can see why they get double what Pitt gets in attendance.
Then there's Penn State, who Pitt fans are most compared to. The Nittany Lions have no pro teams within hours yet can still draw from both Pittsburgh's 2.4 million metro population and Philadelphia's 6 million metro population. That's a double whammy. On top of that they also have a combined 98,000 total students in their entire system. By comparison, Pitt has 35,000 total students in their entire system. Let me repeat that so it will sink in- Penn State has three times more people to chose from.
Looking further at the schools with top attendance, one sees much of the same. No. 3 in attendance is Alabama with just over 101,000. They have the perfect blend of big college town (93,000), close to a big city (Birmingham with 1.1 million metro population), and a big university (nearly 35,000).
No. 6 in attendance is Tennessee with around 95,500. The university competes with no sports teams, but has 850,000 people in their metro area, and a large university of 27,000 students. Again, roughly the same size school and population as Pittsburgh, but with no sports teams to compete against them. They are the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins all wrapped up in a big ball of orange.
The next four are Georgia, LSU, Nebraska, and Florida. All are college towns with no professional teams within an hour of them, yet close to major population centers. Like Penn State, Georgia is the state school, and draws from all over the state. Atlanta, with it's 5.5 million metro population, and Augusta with over 500,000 more, are close by. LSU is in Baton Rouge, which has over 800,000 people in it's metro population, and is a little more than an hour from New Orleans, which has 1.2 million more in it's metro population. Nebraska is in Lincoln, which has 265,000 people, and is less than an hour from Omaha which has about 875,000 more in it's metro population. Florida is in Gainesville, which is just a little over an hour from Jacksonville which has 1.4 million people in the metro area, and has 50,000 students.
I think all of this proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pitt's attendance does not mean that they don't have fans that care, but that it all depends on how many people a school can draw from.
The magic potion is to have a very large university, near, but not in, a major city, and with no major professional teams present. The University of Pittsburgh meets none of that criteria, meaning that their attendance will never reach huge numbers, and may be maxed out at roughly half of what the schools with the most attendance achieve.