Does anyone truly care about the Ragin’ Cajuns?
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns — ranked a week ago in the The Associated Press Preseason Top 25 — will open up their home schedule against Nicholls State Saturday at Cajun Field. The stands should be filled to capacity and the atmosphere electric.
How could it not?
The program is coming off a season that saw the team win a record 11 games, earn a share of the Sun Belt Conference title and finished ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings. This year’s team not only returns 20 starters from last year’s team, but also had its head coach Billy Napier return after being wooed and courted by both South Carolina and Auburn of the mighty Southeastern Conference.
Not to mention, attending the game is extremely affordable.
Tickets are currently running $25 apiece, the concession stand offers $2 beers and $1 hot dogs, and the Ragin’ Cajuns announced this week that free parking is available all season long across from Cajun Field.
With fans not being allowed last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this season’s home opener should be an extravaganza of 40,000 vermilion and white fanatics … but it likely won’t be.
Cajun Field has long been half-filled on Saturday afternoons.
The stadium — which holds 41,264 — has drawn an average of less than 20,000 per game for its entire 50-year history, and has only eclipsed an average of more than 25,000 twice (2013-14).
The most attended game in Cajun Field history belongs to the 2009 contest against Southern University that drew a standing-room record 41,357 fans — and that was before the south end zone expansion added 10,000 more seats. Any guess on which game had the third most fans? The game against Southern in 2014, which drew 36,170.
The Southern fans come out and show out for their Jaguars at home and on the road. The same cannot be said for the Ragin’ Cajuns, which is made even more disappointing because the Napier era has exceeded all expectations.
In his first three seasons, Napier’s Cajuns have won three straight SBC West Division titles, recorded the first 10 win season in program history and first back-to-back double-digit win seasons in program history, earned a share of the conference championship, and earned rankings in all the major polls.
Napier has also accomplished all of that without the scandal and shame that was attached to the program under former head coach Mark Hudspeth.
There haven’t been NCAA violations that resulted in the stripping of victories, no viral player videos — and the coach’s reaction to it — that have enraged supporters, and no multiple players being arrested.
Yet, the attendance of Napier’s tenure has been in a word — putrid.
The very first game against Grambling State drew a respectable 28,866 but the Cajuns drew more than 18,000 only one other game during that 2018 season and averaged 18,550 for the season.
Hudspeth’s first season in 2011, meanwhile, set a new single-season attendance record of an average of more than 29,000 per game.
The 2018 attendance woes rolled right into the 2019 season.
In the opener that season, the team took on Mississippi State and played the “home” game inside the Superdome, because those Bulldogs weren’t going to be coming to Lafayette.
So what was the announced attendance for this matchup against an SEC foe in a historic venue? A mere 22,440. That, unfortunately, proved to be the high watermark. Yes, not even Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze memorably coaching from a hospital bed in the coaches’ box could get folks around here to come out.
Despite marching toward the program’s first 10-win season, the Cajuns drew less fans on average than the year prior. Woof.
There are plenty of reasons for the lack of fan support.
There are probably around 15,000 die-hard fans who bleed vermilion and white but that isn’t nearly enough to counter the long purple and gold shadow cast from the state’s capitol.
The harsh reality is that there are far more LSU fans across Acadiana than there are Ragin’ Cajuns fans. There are folks who would rather go tailgate outside of Tiger Stadium and not even get into the game than watch a game at Cajun Field.
There are the national trends of less and less students and fans in their early-to-mid 20s attending games in person — that’s even the case in the SEC. Not to mention, more and more people in general would rather stay in the comfort of their own homes.
The facilities also are inadequate for modern standards but those necessary upgrades are coming. Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center has committed to donating $15 million — the largest philanthropic gift in Ragin’ Cajuns athletics history — which will go toward the first major renovation in Cajun Field history.
Yes, the SBC doesn’t exactly have teams that move the needle for fans. No one gets excited to watch a game against Texas State, but does that matter? Former rival and fellow Group of Five programs Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech drew more than 24,000 and 20,000 per game in 2019.
Everyone wants and hopes for the Cajuns to join a conference with a bigger profile for better games but if you can’t draw as many fans as a Conference USA program, which conference is going to want you?
Napier is also nowhere near the showman and promoter that Hudspeth was — I mean he once took a helicopter to a high school game — but isn’t coaching the team to wins more important than being showy?
Yet, all of those “reasons” sure do feel more like excuses than anything else.
A football program that wins 10 games a season, competes for conference titles, doesn’t have players get in trouble and represents the community the right way should have more people care about it. Maybe all that absent love and support will show up this season at Cajun Field — starting on Saturday. Or maybe it won’t.
RAYMOND PARTSCH III is a longtime sportswriter and radio broadcaster.