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Eagles looking to stretch wings in new level, league
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Georgia Southern head coach Willie Fritz talks about the recently-completed spring practice and the changes to the program as the Eagles prepare for their first season of Sun Belt Conference play. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Georgia Southern University Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein made a bold prediction during a visit Thursday with Effingham County’s Eagle Club.

With the football program moving from the Southern Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision to the Sun Belt Conference and Football Bowl Subdivision, Kleinlein vowed that Eagle games will become tougher tickets.

“The days of walking up to Paulson Stadium on Saturday and being able to get a game ticket are going to go away,” he said to the GSU fans assembled at Effingham County High School.

“We’re going to sell out — a word that you all have never heard before,” he continued. “But it’s going to happen. I promise you, we will sell out Paulson Stadium.”

Asked when Paulson Stadium sellouts will truly happen, Kleinlein said, “I hope that day is soon. I hope that day is the first game against Savannah State next year.”

Georgia Southern averaged 14,828 for six home dates last year, with a high of 16,827 against Chattanooga and low of 12,220 against Furman. Paulson’s 18,000-seat capacity is in the midst of a 6,300-seat expansion, funded by a student-approved fee increase.

Kleinlein pointed out that, to maintain FBS status, Georgia Southern must average 15,000 fans at home games. That means not just that many people in the stadium, but 15,000 paid tickets.

“If we don’t average 15,000 people, all this hard work that we’ve put in goes away,” he said.

Average attendance also is key, Kleinlein said, as Georgia Southern will now play for bowl bids rather than FCS playoff bids. He stated that Sun Belt Conference member Louisiana-Lafayette has 18,000 season ticket holders and took 32,000 fans to the New Orleans Bowl this past season.

“If they win six games and somebody else (in the conference) wins seven, they’re going to the New Orleans Bowl every year because of how they travel,” Kleinlein said.

Georgia Southern season ticket holders had until April 18 to renew their tickets, and Kleinlein said “between 80 and 85 percent renewed.” That translates to about 4,000 season tickets, he said.

Kleinlein said he would be “really happy” with GSU football having 8,000-10,000 season ticket holders in its first year of Sun Belt play, and then hopefully growing it to 12,000-15,000. One potential challenge to boosting season ticket sales this year is the Eagles having only three Saturday home games in 2014.

Two of GSU’s home games were moved to Thursday nights — Sept. 25 against Appalachian State and Oct. 30 against Troy — to be televised on ESPNU. That leaves just three Saturday dates — one a month in September, October and November.

“It’s our job to continue to drive the game-day experience and make it so that, when people come to our stadium, it’s something that they feel like they have to be there, they want to be there to be a part of what’s going on,” he said.

While Kleinlein touted having two nationally-televised contests, those games will have stiff competition for viewers. The TV listings on Sept. 25 will include the Giants-Redskins NFL game and the Atlanta Braves’ final regular-season home game, and Oct. 30 will have the Saints-Panthers game and potentially a World Series game, along with other college football games and the NBA.

Georgia Southern’s game with Navy will be televised on the CBS Sports Network. The other major college games scheduled for Sept. 25 are UCLA at Arizona State and Texas Tech at Oklahoma State. Defending FBS national champion Florida State will visit Louisville on Oct. 30.

Nonetheless, Kleinlein was emphatic when asked how concerned he is that GSU could be lost in the crowd of televised sporting events.

“Zero concerns,” he said. “I have zero concerns, because being on that channel gives us an opportunity to showcase our university, and I’m fairly confident that our student body and the city of Statesboro and our die-hard Eagle Nations will be there. We’ll just have to see this year.”

Georgia Southern has increased its athletics budget to $16 million, which ranks as third-lowest in the Sun Belt. By comparison, New Mexico State’s is $27 million, Georgia State’s is $25 million and Appalachian State’s $17 million.

Boosting the bottom line, Kleinlein said, will be an increase in revenue from the new conference. Whereas GSU received an average of about $100,000 a year from the Southern Conference, he said the university will get $500,000 in its first year in the Sun Belt.

“In our second year,” he said, “we’re eligible for a full share of that money,” which will be somewhere between $600,000 and $1.5 million per school, based on how highly the Sun Belt ranks at the end of the year among the five non-BCS football conferences.

In the meantime, GSU will have some growing pains in its transition to the FBS — even to include its new football coach. Willie Fritz also addressed the Effingham Eagle Club, and on a few occasions spoke of the football program’s move “to Division I football.”

Georgia Southern has played NCAA Division I athletics since the early 1970s, after transitioning from the NAIA level. Fritz meant the university’s move from FCS, formerly Division I-AA.

“Our goal is to have the same type of success at the Division I level Georgia Southern is used to having at the I-AA level,” he said.

Fritz appeared to make an overall favorable impression with the crowd. He said his first spring practices as the Eagles’ head coach were successful, as the coaching staff implemented new schemes on offense, defense and special teams.

He also told the players they all have a “clean slate.” He spoke in terms that could also apply to those carefully watching Georgia Southern’s ability to transition to FBS.

“We’re going to judge them based on what we see rather than what we heard,” Fritz said.