SOME OF THE more wildly optimistic projections have been scaled back, but representatives of Penn State and the TicketCity Bowl remain confident the school will be well-represented by blue-clad fans when the Nittany Lions take on Houston on Jan. 2 in Dallas.
A few days after the pairing of the 9-3 Lions and 12-1 Cougars was announced on Dec. 4, an ecstatic Tom Starr, president and CEO of the second-year TicketCity Bowl, predicted a turnout of 55,000-plus in the historic, 92,000-seat Cotton Bowl, a significant uptick from the 38,274 who showed up for the inaugural event, in which Texas Tech outlasted Northwestern, 45-38.
"The first 24 hours after we named the matchup, our phones didn't stop ringing," Starr said.
Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley said he was certain that the obligatory hordes of alumni and fans would converge on Dallas, as is usually the case whenever and wherever the team goes bowling.
"I think our fans will show up. They always do," Bradley said. "We have a tremendous following. Our students, our fans, our friends, they've been there with us the whole way, and they will continue to be. I would be surprised if they don't. Penn State has the largest active alumni association in the world, so I would imagine they'll show in strength."
Dave Joyner, Penn State's acting athletic director, seconded that prediction, saying, "I have every indication we're going to travel very well, like we always do."
But the phones aren't ringing as frequently of late in the TicketCity Bowl offices, nor in State College, where Bud Meredith serves as Penn State's director of ticketing operations. Starr now admits he's hoping for a more modest turnout in the 45,000 range.
Reasons for a lesser demand for tickets than had been expected are many and varied. The economy remains lousy. The TicketCity Bowl is still a new kid on the bowl block and hasn't found its footing. Iconic coach Joe Paterno, who was fired on Nov. 9, won't be prowling the sideline (or be perched in the coaching booth) like an octogenarian rock star. And, of course, Penn State has lost at least some of its allure due to fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
Starr, who has been a member of various bowl committees for 31 years, said too much should not be made of the lowered ticket projections.
"You have to be realistic and acknowledge that fans aren't traveling as much as they have in the past," Starr said. "Obviously, the economy has a lot to do with that. More people are saying, 'Well, let's stay home and watch the game on TV.' As bowl directors, we'd better get used to that."
Penn State received an allotment of 6,000 tickets. Meredith said he expects to sell 4,000 of those, including the 500 set aside for the university's Marching Blue Band. But he noted that the likelihood of PSU returning a portion of its tickets to bowl organizers doesn't mean there won't be a reasonably strong presence in the stands.
"Nobody's doing well with bowl sales," Meredith said. "I just talked the other day with Iowa. They're going out to the Insight Bowl and they're lagging in their sales. I think it's the economy more than anything. We pretty much saw that during the course of the season, where we were not taking anywhere near the number of our people that we historically have to road games. The number slipped dramatically.
"But we have in excess of 9,000 alums in Texas. Talking to the bowl people, they've indicated that many of the calls they're receiving - up to a 4-to-1 margin - are from Penn State alumni and fans. Those callers are buying their tickets from them, so we don't get credit for their sales."
Not all reports of bowl sales are trending downward. According to PrimeSport, demand is up for tickets and hospitality packages for the BCS games, especially the BCS national championship rematch between LSU and Alabama.
BCS games, however, are big-time attractions. Left mostly unsaid is the possibility that Penn State supporters are unenthused about a trip to a second-tier bowl, because more than a few of the players felt that way when more-established, better-paying bowls bypassed the Lions.