Last week, Tennessee and Virginia Tech played in front of the largest crowd in college football history as a crowd of 156,990 crammed into Bristol Motor Speedway. The half-mile track turned out to be an awesome setting for a college football game, even if the football was a bit harder to see from the stands than usual.
Building a football field in the middle of a NASCAR speedway took a lot of work, and it seemed like a waste to do all that for just one game. So this week, there was a second, less-heralded game. FCS East Tennessee State played a conference game against Western Carolina on the same field at Bristol. There were... slightly fewer people this week.
13,863 people attended, a record for an ETSU game. But even with the attendance record set, there were 143,127 empty seats.
Here’s Saturday’s game vs. a picture of last Saturday’s game taken by Christopher Hanewinckel of USA TODAY Sports:
It’s easy to make fun of the empty seats, but Saturday was potentially a huge day for the future of ETSU’s program. The Buccaneers are newly back in existence after the school discontinued its program in 2003. Last year was their first year, and they went 2-9 as an independent.
ETSU is located in Johnson City, about 20 miles from Bristol. (And about two hours east of the Cumberland Gap, not west. Do not ask the guys who wrote Wagon Wheel for directions.) Right now, they play at a local high school field which seats 6,600. They’re currently building a newer, bigger facility.
The Bristol game shows that interest in ETSU is over twice what their current facility can hold. For a program in Year 2, that’s pretty unbelievable.
And perhaps most importantly, they won, coming back from a 21-3 deficit to beat Western Carolina 34-31. It was their first win in conference play in 13 years, and pushed the team to 2-0 on the year.
So you can point and laugh at the empty seats, or we can celebrate a cool — if cavernous — event for ETSU’s fans and team.