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BenFred: Drinkwitz's drumbeat about Mizzou attendance is message worth monitoring

BenFred: Drinkwitz's drumbeat about Mizzou attendance is message worth monitoring

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West Virginia Mountaineers vs Missouri Tigers

Mizzou fans wave tiger tails and cheer the defense as West Virginia tries to convert on a third down in last September's game at Faurot Field. (Post-Dispatch photo by David Carson)

With a diet soda sweating in front of him and a Sharpie spinning excitedly between his hands, Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz turned this week’s Tiger Talk radio segment into something awfully similar to a sermon.

The message?

Fill the pews.

With his voice carrying over a Facebook livestream and radio broadcasts played by stations across the state, Drinkwitz flipped a recruiting question from broadcaster Mike Kelly into what seems to be his favorite topic these days.

Attendance.

Drinkwitz shared that he and his staff are now recruiting prospects in the 2023 class. Some in-state high school stars, he said, will be in CoMo for Saturday’s season opener against Central Michigan. And if that was not enough of a hint …

“I’ll tell you what would really help,” Drinkwitz told Kelly. “I need the fans in the stands. We’ve got to have fans in the stands.”

Drinkwitz has been singing this tune for a while now, from SEC media days in Alabama to one of his final pregame press conferences this week, when he point blank told fans, “It’s time to put up.”

Careful there, Coach. Coaches take a risk when they start opining about fan behavior. Especially Mizzou coaches.

Even pointing out the standoffishness of Tiger fans as a columnist can draw claims of having a biased St. Louis view. That shot doesn’t land here, though. I was born and raised in Sedalia. I went to Mizzou, just like my parents and my sister. I know the fan base pretty well by now, I think. Tigers fans can be stubborn. I happen to know stubborn, too.

Attendance is a thorny issue for folks who pride themselves on a Show-Me stance. It often devolves into a chicken-or-egg debate. Wins bring in fans better than pleas for attendance spikes. But most coaches will tell you it’s a lot easier to win when the benefits of robust attendance are flowing. The old line about there being a lot of would-be Mizzou supporters who are waiting until after that long-awaited national championship to buy season tickets is three things: funny, true and, to some, insulting.

Throw in the understandable reservations some have about attending games in the continued presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and/or the understandable reservations some have about Mizzou’s decision to not require vaccinations or negative COVID tests for game attendance, and a challenging subject no matter the time takes on even more nuance now.

But Drinkwitz’s relentless energy, his encouraging start last season, and his recruiting progress has emboldened him to speak up about a subject area he believes needs a boost. The Tigers won’t be as quick to close gaps with the Floridas and the Georgias when the recruits the Tigers are chasing see a significantly more electric atmosphere when they visit Florida and Georgia. Drinkwitz is offering fans an invitation to be part of the solution, and he’s hoping the goodwill he has built up since his hire will increase the chance it is received.

Some will pass this season for reasons Drinkwitz must understand. He has thankfully been one of the SEC’s most outspoken advocates for COVID vaccinations. Those who have unvaccinated children, for example, might think twice about taking them to a gathering of thousands, even one outdoors.

Some will pass for the same old reasons, the ones that will make Drinkwitz fume, whether he vents his frustration publicly or not. Lake trips. Bad weather. Bad kickoff times. Leftover grudges held from the 2015 team’s threat to boycott a game. The list goes on and on.

There are reasons Mizzou ranked No. 29 in the nation and 10th in the SEC in average home attendance (54,160) during the sport’s last full-capacity season in 2019, and it wasn’t just Barry Odom’s 6-6 record. Some SEC East context: Tennessee’s spring scrimmage that same year was played in front of nearly 51,000.

Better times are ahead for Mizzou, it seems, and Drinkwitz hopes the energy level inside Memorial Stadium reflects that trend even before more interesting SEC opponents begin to arrive. The lack of hard numbers on tickets sold entering Saturday’s game combined with Drinkwitz’s repeated requests for rears in seats suggest things might not be where the coach hoped, at least not yet. If Saturday features a few too many empty rows, will Drinkwitz double down after a win?

This is a storyline worth monitoring. The coach could fire up fans. Or, this could backfire.

I know what a few of you are thinking. Keep winning, people will come, and the so-called problem solves itself. What worked for Gary Pinkel will work for Drinkwitz, if he can win as much. You’re not wrong.

But if you are one of those Mizzou fans who fear some bigger, better program is going to come poach your up-and-coming coach, and I know there are some of you out there because I hear from you all in emails and during chats at STLtoday.com, know that Drinkwitz is giving you a way to combat that possibility in real time.

He wants to see you at Faurot Field on Saturdays. He wants to see you at the columns for a celebratory cocktail after wins. He wants Tiger fans all in now, not later. Fan response, or lack thereof, could be a factor later.

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