Detroit — The day after a holiday is often a bad one for attendance at sporting events, and that was the case Friday at the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit.
Local turnout, as well as that of fans from Rutgers and North Carolina, was low.
But Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand said he was happy with the overall experience for the Quick Lane Bowl's inaugural year.
"I think when you get the feedback that we've gotten from both of the participating institutions — both Rutgers and North Carolina, their student-athletes, the coaches, their families — (you'll see) it's been tremendously successful," he said. "I think for an inaugural game, you couldn't be more pleased."
Lewand also was happy with the number of paid tickets — 23,876.
"We knew that coming into it," he said. "When you partner with the Big Ten and the ACC, you know you're getting some geographic diversity and you know there's going to be some travel challenges for supporters of those schools around the holidays. From an attendance standpoint ... that's a very solid number."
Lewand said bowl games are more than just attendance.
"We measure it by a lot of different standards," he said. "Even by the attendance standard, we feel like we've got a good base to build from."
That wasn't so obvious to many observers.
At Bookie's bar on Cass, six patrons and three employees were there just after 2 p.m. for the 4:30 kickoff.
"We had a group in here earlier; I know that was some Rutgers alums," said Charlie Swearingen, who works at Bookie's. "To be honest, we haven't seen a ton. But, it's probably a little early to tell."
He said the bar was closed Thursday for Christmas and the days leading up to the holiday were not very busy.
"I personally believe that we did better when we had local teams (playing at Ford Field)," he said. "You're going to get more of a following."
One fan who traveled for the Quick Lane Bowl is North Carolina grad Samuel Osae of Raleigh, who described himself as a "die-hard" Tar Heels fan.
"That's a pretty solid statement right there," he said.
Osae had never been to Detroit before Friday — despite having friends who live in the area.
"I haven't seen that much," he said of Detroit. "I just got off the plane about an hour ago. All I've seen is the airport, the freeway and this bar."
That got a round of laughs from his friends.
"How much more do you need to see?" one of them joked.
Osae said he has traveled to see UNC play before.
"Let's see — I've been to Florida, Virginia, South Carolina, Arizona, Tennessee," he said.
Swearingen said the previous bowl games at Ford Field, such as the Motor City Bowl and Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, have done little for the business at Bookie's — despite appearances from Central Michigan and Western Michigan.
"We don't see the kind of results we would see from a Lions game — even a Red Wings game," Swearingen said. "I've been down here working at different places (in Detroit) for the last 10 years. I worked when we had the (Mid-American Conference) championship game here and we had two tables that were affiliated with it. We don't see much from them (the bowls), really."
He said the North Carolina-Rutgers matchup was a tough sell.
"How many people from North Carolina are going to travel to Detroit the day after Christmas?" he said. "If it was a few days after Christmas and people didn't have family obligations (it would be better), but I think most people are going to be with their families. I think the timing of the game doesn't help, for sure."
Paul Heiler from Taylor and three of his friends were tailgating Friday afternoon in a parking lot at the corner of Columbia and Clifford.
"My neighbor Gary (Melletat) here got us some tickets so we thought we would come down and enjoy this lovely day," he said.
Melletat said he received the tickets from work and chose to take advantage of the opportunity to see the game.
"I like football," he said. "I think it does help the city that they have the game down here. Even though it's not local teams, I think it is going to bring in some money and some people."
Heiler said he didn't have a particular attachment to either team, but does root for the Big Ten. "I'm rooting for Rutgers today," he said.
Heiler's was the only group tailgating in any of the lots from Grand River to Woodward — an area usually full on days where either the Lions or Tigers are playing.
"I thought there would be some more people down here," he said. "It's a beautiful day, tickets are pretty reasonable so I thought there would be some people down here enjoying the chance to watch some more football downtown."
Melletat said he was surprised only slightly; he didn't expect to see a crowd like one coming for a Lions game.
"The holiday doesn't affect it as much as people think," he said. "There's more people off (work and school), so that's why there's going to be more people down here."
Craig Nessel is a Rutgers fan from Randolph, New Jersey, who came with his two sons and two more friends. Nessel said he agreed with those who said the game being played the day after Christmas would be bad for attendance.
"There's a lot of Rutgers people around, but not quite as many as would have been if (it was) a better date and maybe a better location," he said.
"We were able to drive out here (about nine hours and 605 miles), so the cost was relatively low. I probably wouldn't have gone if it was a difficult destination."
John Deal, from Grand Ledge, is a 1989 graduate of UNC. He said the commute was a definite positive for him. The last bowl game he went to was in 1983 and he said he hasn't seen UNC play since moving to Michigan three years ago.
"(The crowd is) about what I would have expected," Deal said.
Heiler said as a graduate of Central Michigan, he's seen some good attendance at Ford Field for bowl games — the key was having a local team playing.
"Something with a local tie helps make a difference," he said.
Al Willman is a freelance writer