Penn State's home football schedule a 'challenge,' but not in the conventional sense
By the time Army West Point visits Beaver Stadium on Oct. 3, Penn State football fans might have home-game fatigue.
As Penn State's fourth consecutive home game — and with homecoming to follow a week later — the date sits as a challenge on the football calendar. How does Penn State lure fans back to State College for five straight weekends during a curiously scheduled season?
"We have to provide something of value," said Sandy Barbour, Penn State's athletic director. "We have to provide something they want to drive for."
For the first time in 93 years, Penn State's football schedule includes home games on five consecutive weekends. In 1922, such a schedule wasn't as unique. St. Bonaventure, William & Mary, Gettysburg, Lebanon Valley and Middlebury (the homecoming opponent) all visited Penn State's much-smaller Beaver Field on the opposite side of campus.
But now, scheduling is a complex undertaking tugged at by schools, conferences and television networks, all with competing interests. For Penn State, seven home games are economically imperative for the athletic department. But playing five of them consecutively has its drawbacks.
"The first step is recognizing that it's not easy," Barbour said. "It's a challenge for our fans, and frankly it's a challenge for our staff. It's a hand we were dealt somewhat by the Big Ten and somewhat by ... the non-conference scheduling. It's one we obviously will seek to avoid in the future."
Penn State will host non-conference games against Buffalo, San Diego State and Army West Point around Big Ten games against Rutgers and Indiana. When Penn State originally scheduled a home-and-home series with Rutgers in 2009, those were non-conference games.
The Lions had an option to shift the Rutgers game to mid-November but instead kept that as their bye week. San Diego State and Army were added in 2013 and 2014 as one-time home games, but their dates had to be wedged into the pre-conference schedule.
The Big Ten's schedule has Penn State opening conference play Oct. 10 at Beaver Stadium against Indiana. Oddly, this is the first time Penn State will begin Big Ten play at home since 2009.
As a result, Penn State's 2015 home schedule is quite front-loaded. Add an opening-weekend visit to Lincoln Financial to play Temple, and Penn State won't leave Pennsylvania until Oct. 17.
It's not ideal, Penn State coach James Franklin said, but it also mostly was out of his control.
"You want to be able to break up home and away games through the season so you can spread those out," Franklin said. "But we only have so much control over so many things. The thing we can control is our out-of-conference schedule. What the Big Ten gives us, year in and year out, and when we play people [in conference games] is up to them, however."
Penn State, whose home attendance increased 5 percent in 2014, has taken some steps to address the home schedule. With its variable-pricing ticket model, Penn State allotted its cheapest single-game seats ($40) to the Buffalo, San Diego State and Army West Point games. During Blue-White weekend, Penn State also sold a special $99 package for those three games.
As part of its promotional schedule, the athletic department will recognize police, fire and EMT personnel (Buffalo), will offer a special ticket package for parents (Rutgers) and will offer fans an opportunity to purchase tickets for military personnel (Army West Point). The Seats for Servicemembers program has sold more than 4,000 tickets, Penn State said.
Barbour said bringing fans to State College is only part of the equation. Penn State has begun a long-term strategic-planning project to assess its needs for the future. Among the facilities being studied is Beaver Stadium, which Barbour said is ready for some upgrades.
Improved Wi-Fi access, better concessions and attention to the stadium restrooms all are part of future plans, Barbour said.
"Regardless of the level of passion there is about Penn State football — and it's huge — we realize that our fans have a choice," Barbour said. "We need to make sure we provide them with an experience in Beaver Stadium that motivates them to come."
2015 PENN STATE SCHEDULE
Sept. 5: at Temple (Lincoln Financial Field)
Sept. 12: BUFFALO
Sept. 19: RUTGERS
Sept. 26: SAN DIEGO STATE
Oct. 3: ARMY WEST POINT
Oct. 10: INDIANA
Oct. 17: at Ohio State
Oct. 24: at Maryland (M&T Bank Stadium)
Oct. 31: ILLINOIS
Nov. 7: at Northwestern
Nov. 14: BYE
Nov. 21: MICHIGAN
Nov. 28: at Michigan State
Home games in caps