By Jimmy Hyams
Tony Vitello’s Diamond Vols have captured the imagination of the Tennessee fan base.
The regular-season home attendance record was shattered, as over 4,200 routinely showed up for SEC weekend series.
The old record for regular season attendance: 64,107 in 1997 with an average of 2,137 per game.
The new record: 154,818 this year with an average of 4,184 per game. All 38 home games had at least 3,500 fans. And 24 home games had over 4,000. UT set a weekend series record with 13,699 for Auburn (the previous record entering the season was 11,280). And a midweek game against Western Carolina attracted 4,607.
Counting postseason, the UT home attendance record was 81,804 set in 1995.
Stadium expansion helped with this year’s attendance figures. So did having the top-ranked team in the nation.
As a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee will host a Regional next weekend, and, if it wins the regional, will host a Super Regional.
How many fans can UT cram into Lindsey Nelson Stadium for the postseason? Over 5,000? Over 6,000?
Tennessee athletic director Danny White isn’t sure, but he doesn’t want to make it uncomfortable for those in attendance.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re balanced,’’ White said in an exclusive interview Tuesday on SportsTalk, WNML radio. “We want to get as many in the stadium as possible. … But we don’t want to get too crazy by adding more standing-room-only tickets, adding more facility concerns about the experience.’’
In other words, he doesn’t want excessive lines at the concession stands or restrooms.
“Our infrastructure can only handle so much,’’ White said. “We don’t want to cause a negative experience. … When we improve the infrastructure, then we can have bigger crowds.’’
Tennessee had a block party at last year’s Regionals and the atmosphere was amazing.
“Even if it was just as electric as last year, it would be phenomenal,’’ White said of UT hosting a Regional. “I don’t know if it gets better than the atmosphere we had last year, but we just might beat it. I can’t wait. I think it will be so much fun.
“I think the fans will exceed expectations. The players give them a show. I think it will be awesome.’’
Ticket prices on the secondary market have been astronomical. Some weekend games have gone for over $300. Some weekday games have gone for at least $115.
If someone had told White before the season that some weekday games would go for $115, what would he have said?
“I would have said, `Is that all?’’’ White responded. “I’m obviously kidding. It’s amazing what’s happening in baseball. It’s the passion of the fan base.
“It didn’t take me long to realize it’s the best fan base in college sports and they respond to all of our sports.
“I know our student-athletes feel that and it motivates them to compete. It motivates all of us to deliver what this University deserves and state deserves, which is the best athletic department in the country.’’
On another topic, a recent study showed Tennessee had the best winning percentage covering all sports in the SEC: .672.
No other SEC team was above .600.
That’s music to White’s ears.
“I’m a competitor,’’ White said. “I know our fans are competitors. Most importantly, our coaches and student-athletes are competitors.
“That’s where we should be. That’s where the Tennessee brand should be. I’m excited we’re there that early (in White’s tenure; he was hired January 2021). And restoring the Power T and bringing us back to where we want to be, where it needs to be.
“We have early momentum, but we’ve ’ve got a lot of work to do to be sustainable, where we can expect this kind of year, year in and year out.
“The coaches are doing a great job of overdelivering. I’m thrilled about it. It’s been a phenomenal year.’’
And with baseball entering the postseason, and track and field headed to the NCAAs, it could get even better.