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Pirate Notebook No. 310
Monday, June 25, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Marshall outing should set the new standard

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East Carolinaís return to bowl competition wasnít the most encouraging sign from the 2006 season. The 41,000-plus who witnessed the Pirates pound Marshall was.

That importance of a near-capacity crowd attending a late season match-up with a Conference USA opponent canít be overstated. Now the challenge is for that November day to become the norm.

With ECU quickly approaching a sellout of its season ticket allotment, fans have little excuse for that development not to become a long-time trend. And considering East Carolinaís desires to eventually secure a Big East football invitation, the last thing it can afford is for Marshall to be an isolated event.

Because thus far thatís been the case.

Traditionally, C-USA contests have been a proven recipe for no-shows and unsold tickets. Even when the Pirates faced reasonably high stakes, overwhelming interest just wasnít there for showdowns with conference opponents.

That was the case in 2001 when the Pirates faced nationally-ranked Louisville in what amounted to the league championship game. Not even 40,000 attended that ESPN Thursday night showdown, a dramatic matchup that should have produced nothing short of a sellout.

And hold those gripes about the burden weeknight games present to fans. An overflow crowd of 45,123 showed up one year earlier against Virginia Tech.

No doubt, one of East Carolinaís strengths has always been its devoted throng of die-hards. That group doesnít miss a home game, is good for at least two road trips, and would travel to Taiwan to see the Pirates in a bowl.

Weddings, funerals, and family reunions are strategically scheduled around ECU football.

Last season that group was joined by the most faithful student support the Pirates have experienced to date. With the exception of ECUís fall break match-up with Tulsa, the student section provided the type of 12th-man effort that is commonly associated with Texas A&M.

Thatís not the issue.

Whatís been sorely missing over the last decade is the presence of fringe fans at games against less-glamorous opponents. That group is quick to purchase tickets for West Virginia, North Carolina, or N.C. State, and quick to choose weekend golf holidays in lieu of attending ECU versus Tulane.

Itís a perplexing scenario, really. Despite the steady rise in ECUís alumni population over the last decade, the committed fan base hasnít made a parallel increase.

If that were so, AD Terry Holland would have already put the expansion plans for Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium into full motion. That includes all architectural drawings, fundraising, and the selection of a contractor.

But that isnít the case. Instead ECUís football home rests in the same stagnant state it has been since the completion of the club level prior to the 1999 season.

Meanwhile N.C. State has made significant upgrades to Carter-Finley Stadium. Much of that can be attributed to the Wolfpack faithfulís commitment regardless of the opponent or the antics of State's former coach.

Care to guess how many will attend Tom OíBrienís debut against Central Florida? Or how about two weeks later when the Pack hosts Wofford?

My moneyís riding on a sellout.

That should also be the case at East Carolina, regardless of the opponent. Even if Campbell or Coastal Carolina came to town, ideally the only available tickets on gameday would be those obtained on the street.

For years, East Carolina has been one of the torch bearers in C-USA for attendance. But at some point its fans must raise the bar higher than measuring itself against a league in which most programs command marginal interest.

If there isnít a sense of urgency within the constituency to fill Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this fall, there never will be. With few chances remaining to impress the Big East, fans should view every empty seat as a gigantic strike against ECUís possible admission.

That wonít be an issue when the Pirates host UNC-Chapel Hill or N.C. State. But will it against Southern Miss, Central Florida, UAB, or Tulane?

Approaching sellouts for those four opponents would reflect a trend in the right direction.

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06/25/2007 02:26:24 AM

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