Inside HOKIE SPORTS | Vol. 15 No. 3 | December 2022

8 Inside Hokie Sports The Story of the Year for Virginia Tech football? The Team’s Passionate Fan Base. By Bill Roth Clearly, the 2022 football season wasn’t as successful as Virginia Tech fans would’ve liked. The Hokies endured a 3-8 season during a time of historic transition in the program. But despite the on-field struggles, Virginia Tech fans continued to pack Lane Stadium, a feat that now appears to be the true story of the year for Tech’s program. For the season, the Hokies averaged 64,387 fans per game, and their season long capacity was at 98.06-percent. Those figures rank 3rd in the ACC and 23rd nationally. (Of note: those rankings would’ve been higher had the Virginia Tech-Virginia game been played. Tech would’ve ranked 2nd in the ACC behind only Clemson.) The following factoid might make ya cringe, yet give you hope: Only two teams in the country lost eight games in 2022 yet averaged over 60,000 fans per game: Nebraska (86,637) and Virginia Tech. While that’s not a list anyone in Blacksburg (or Lincoln) wants to make, those numbers are indicative of the tremendous passion Virginia Tech fans have for their team, even during a season in which the onfield results were underwhelming. It also reflects creative marketing campaigns from Tech athletics what proved to be winners for Hokie fans. Student attendance is as good as anyone in the ACC. One look at Lane Stadium’s south endzone or the upper east stands during the 2022 season was proof of that. Also this past season, new packages for the Upper South Endzone saw that area sell out for all six home games. Perhaps most notably, community engagement campaigns through group ticket programs led to over 8,000 tickets sold to groups throughout Virginia and over 1,500 tickets for Troops to Veterans. The net result? Lane Stadium rocked again in ’22 as if the Hokies were in the CFB Playoff hunt. “We’re building it to be sustainable, and hopefully so it can withstand a downward trend in the wins column,” Senior Associate Athletics Director Brad Wurthman told me. “Nearly 20-percent of all fans are single-game buyers now in Lane. That number used to be 0-percent. It’s awesome to see because it builds the pipeline.” New people were exposed to the Lane Stadium experience this season. First-time visitors bought-into the culture of fan participation at the Home of the Hokies. “I’ve been so impressed with Hokie Nation this season,” ACC Network analyst Eric Mac Lain told me. “No matter the circumstances, those passionate fans have brought it every game.” The circumstances? Of course, are losing games. That Lane Stadium is loud and crazy and fans are jumping around, singing and making an impact is nothing new. But for this to happen week-after-week during a 3-8 season? “Virginia Tech is one of my favorite places the ACC Huddle has visited,” Mac Lain said. “When Lane Stadium is rocking it’s one of the toughest environments in all of college football.” It’s a top selling point for Tech coach Brent Pry: “That stadium and those crowds are a big, big positive for our team,” Pry said. “When you come down that tunnel and see and hear that crowd, that’s motivating. “When you have a bunch of recruits in town, that’s the environment they want to play in.” “For me, the message to recruits is this: Here is a team that’s in a transition year and struggling to get wins, and look how we’re packin’ them in. Imagine when we get this thing rollin’ what it’s going to look like.” When long-time Virginia Tech fans talk about amazing crowds at Lane Stadium, they often talk about the primetime games in the 90’s. Thursday games against Clemson and WVU. Or the Miami game when Tech ended the ‘Canes 31-game winning streak. But in a way, two games this season stand-out among the most notable crowds ever at Lane. The home games against Wofford and Georgia Tech. Why? The Wofford game on September 17 was played at 11 a.m. which was the earliest kickoff in school history. And even though the opponent was an FCS team with a 12-game losing streak, Lane was packed. An hour before kickoff at 10 a.m., the student section was full, which was remarkable for typically sleepy college kids. The Georgia Tech game on November 5 was played in foggy, rainy, miserable conditions, yet Lane was packed again with over 60,000 fans. The Hokies were 2-6, sheets of rain were cascading in front of the stadium lights, and yet the place was jammed. And loud. Could any other fan base in the ACC do that? It’s easy to pack a stadium when the team is great, chasing a league title, and in the playoff hunt. But when a team is struggling, enduring its third straight losing season and the weather is miserable? At Virginia Tech in 2022, it didn’t matter. The fans came anyway. And participated. Television networks love live theatre. And Lane Stadium provides that theatre each week which makes it even more valuable for ACC media partner ESPN for the 2023 season. This fall, ABC/ESPN loses the Big Ten rights, opening attractive windows for ACC games on the Disney networks. That, of course, will change in 2024 when ESPN gets the SEC exclusively and Texas and Oklahoma join that conference. But in 2023, the Hokies have the chance to show off their ‘theatre’ in a big way. Attendance figures and packed stadiums resonate with sponsors too. There are plenty of teams with winning records that can’t match Virginia Tech attendance figures or fan interest. That sponsor interest drives revenue for the entire athletics department. And of course sponsor interest drives NIL participation. That has a positive impact on the entire program as well. So when the on-field results turn in the Hokies’ favor, the place will be even more special for fans and players alike. Oddly, I recalled visiting with former Vanderbilt and UAB head coach Watson Brown about playing games in Blacksburg. His teams lost to Tech 18-0 in 1989 and then 37-0 in 1997 in Blacksburg. When the Hokies visited Birmingham in 1998 and shut them out for the third straight time 41-0, coach mentioned “It’s was never (Lane) stadium, it’s those dudes on defense that caused us problems.” In 1999 at Lane, Brown and his Blazers finally did score, but the Hokies won anyway 31-10. That day, Tech held UAB to just 63 total yards for the entire game after which Brown joked that “at least we scored,” and credited the crowd for several false start penalties that day. UAB had 10 penalties on the day. It’s a note to recall because a crowd and the team can work together. Home field advantages are real, and Lane can be intimidating. If you have a top-10 team full of NFL dudes, that makes it even better, right? Regardless, the crowd will be critical for Tech in 2023 if the Hokies are going to reach the level of success they want. The ’23 schedule is significantly tougher than ’22 with Purdue, Pitt, Syracuse, N.C. State, and Wake Forest visiting Blacksburg. Those are all winning programs as we know. On the field, 2022 was not a season to remember. But in the stands, it certainly was.