Like Everyone Else, Lyons Excited About Football Prospects in 2018
Each summer dating back to Fred Schaus, I’ve gotten a chance to sit down with West Virginia University’s director of athletics for an in-depth interview on a wide range of topics. From conference realignment to coaching changes to facilities renovations, we’ve covered an extensive landscape over the last three decades.
This summer I got another chance for a lengthy one-on-one interview with Shane Lyons, who was hired as WVU’s A.D. in January of 2015. As usual, the questions involved a variety of subjects. In a series of articles over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll look at Lyons’ view on those topics. We kicked off this series with a recap of Phase 1 of facilities improvements, then followed that up with details on Phase 2 of West Virginia’s athletic facilities renovations, which Lyons will reveal publicly in the next month.
In part three of this series, we look at his thoughts on the expectations surrounding the Mountaineer football team heading into the 2018 season.
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With a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and nearly a consensus top 25 preseason ranking, West Virginia enters the 2018 football campaign with very high hopes.
And WVU director of athletics Shane Lyons isn’t one to shy away from such optimism.
“The expectations are high, and they should be,” said Lyons, who prior to returning to his alma mater had served as the deputy director of athletics at Alabama for four years. “Coach (Dana) Holgorsen has done a great job of building this team and having some young men come back for their senior years. Offensively we can talk about the number of returners. I think offensive line will be always be every college team’s concern, and we have some guys coming back there who have some playing time. If we can keep them healthy, we should be fine.
“And Coach (Tony) Gibson on the defensive side of the ball continues to always surprise with what he does and the schemes he has. He has some players returning, maybe not all who have been starters but have had playing time in previous years.”
Most of the preseason publications already on the newsstands project WVU as a top 25 squad. In the past decade, West Virginia has been rated in the top 25 in the preseason by the Associated Press three times – 22nd in 2017, 24th in 2011 and 25th in 2010. But you have to go back to 2008, when WVU entered the season No. 8, to find the last time the Mountaineers were ranked above No. 22 by the A.P. in the preseason. This very well could be the year that changes that, though it is still over a month away from the release of the 2018 A.P. preseason poll. Of the four major preseason publications already distributed, three have West Virginia in the top 25. Athlon rates WVU No. 22, Street & Smith No. 22 and Lindy’s No. 15. Only Phil Steele does not have the Mountaineers among his top 25.
“The key is to get off to a fast start,” explained Lyons. “That makes the neutral site opener against Tennessee especially important. That game will get great national exposure. Then we come back home against Youngstown State before going to N.C. State. Then we head into conference play. Looking at the schedule, if we can keep everybody healthy going into that November, that will be critical. That’s when we face Texas and Oklahoma and other really tough opponents.
“The expectations are high, and everyone is excited for the season.”
Despite those high expectations, Lyons admits that he’s been somewhat disappointed by West Virginia’s season ticket sales to this point.
WVU began selling mini-season ticket package, as well as single-game tickets, on July 9. Up to that point, the Mountaineer had sold 24,000 full season ticket packages.
“I’m not happy with where they are at,” said Lyons of those season ticket sales. “We all want more, especially with the expectations. You would hope they would be a lot better. It is flat compared to where it was last year. We keep getting numbers in each week, and they remain flat.
“I think people are taking a wait-and-see approach. I think across the country, everyone is looking at season ticket sales differently than they used to. People are going to an a la carte menu. It’s not just Mountaineer fans, but it’s happening all across the country. We recently did a survey of 18 schools, just to see how we compare. Of those, 11 of the 18 were down, five of the others were flat or slightly up, and two were significantly up. We’re in that middle group in that we’re flat. It will be interesting to see how the mini-packs sell.”
WVU sold just over 27,000 season tickets in 2017 and will likely be in that range again this year. Those will be the low marks for recent times, down from a high of slightly more than 37,000 in 2012. That total has been decreasing each year since.
It’s not just a West Virginia problem either. The average attendance at FBS games last year was 42,203, which was a decrease of 1,409 from the year before and also was the lowest figure in more than 30 years. Even the vaunted SEC saw its attendance fall by 3.2 percent.
“Season ticket sales are a problem in all sports, not just intercollegiate athletics,” noted Lyons. “Our media packages are so much greater that people have the ability to stay home and watch basically every game on their 60-inch TV. They don’t have to mess with parking, concessions and all that.
“We have to go back and evaluate everything we do,” he added. “Of course we’re in the middle of things now, so we’re not going to make any big changes for this year. But in the future we’re going to have to sit down and look at how we are marketing things and determine if it is the right way. Do we need to make changes? It’s just like everything in life; you have to adapt and adjust. I just read where Major League Baseball attendance is down over 10 percent. And the NFL’s attendance and viewership were down last year. We have to look at other opportunities and ways to attract fans. But to do something on the fly is irrational. I think you have to study it and look at changes in the future.
“Wherever our season ticket numbers end up, we have the opportunity to make that up in single-game ticket sales. We did that a couple years ago. Our season ticket sales were down a little bit, but we went 10-2 and people came out and supported us and we had full houses.”
“There is nothing like being in the Coliseum or Mountaineer Field on a game day and having that experience,” concluded Lyons. “We’re hoping that once the season starts and we have success, we’re filling Mountaineer Field. One thing I always felt is that Mountaineer fans are very loyal, and they are game changers who make a difference for our student-athlete. Having a full stadium is important to our teams to help them pull through in tight situations.”
If WVU lives up to its high expectations, it will likely be playing in the Big 12 Championship game in Dallas on Dec. 1. After a six-year hiatus, that league title affair returned in 2017, as Oklahoma defeated TCU, 41-17, before a crowd of 64,104 at the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
“I think everyone felt the championship game was a success,” said Lyons. “It gave us a presence on Championship Saturday where in the past we were just playing a regular season game. I don’t think it should go unnoticed that we are the only league in the country where we play nine conference games and everybody plays everyone else in the league, and the championship game is truly one vs. two. We’re not taking division winners; it’s the two best teams in the league. I think last year was a step in the right direction of having that championship game, and we’ll see how things pan out this year.”
Obviously Lyons hopes it pans out that the Mountaineers are playing in the Big 12 championship game this December.
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In our next installment, which is slated for July 12, we’ll talk to Lyons about WVU’s future football scheduling, as well as what he expects televised sports to look like in the years ahead.