Oklahoma football: Fewer fans than last year, but 2023 Spring Game among nation’s best attended

Oklahoma Red Team's Jackson Arnold (10) passes the ball during a spring scrimmage game at Norman Okla., on Saturday, April 22, 2023.oufoot -- jump1
Oklahoma Red Team's Jackson Arnold (10) passes the ball during a spring scrimmage game at Norman Okla., on Saturday, April 22, 2023.oufoot -- jump1 /

Most college teams, including the Oklahoma football program, have held their annual spring games as the headliner of the spring practice season.

The vast majority of FBS-level teams, but not quite all, have by now concluded their organized spring practice schedules, including the popular spring game, which serves as the feature event of spring football activities. Many schools, but not all, make a big deal out of the spring game, inviting former players to attend and organizing special events in conjunction with the modified game-like format featuring the roster of players for the coming fall season.

Count Oklahoma among those schools that does the spring game up big every year, and the fan turnout is an excellent measure of the popularity and overall fan appreciation for the event.

The Sooners held their annual Red-White spring scrimmage on Saturday, providing an opportunity for fans and media representatives to get an early preview of what to expect from Oklahoma football when the games kick off for real four-plus months from now. The event also serves as the centerpiece for a huge football recruiting weekend.

A lot of factors come into play as far as fan attendance at college spring games. Weather is a primary factor because in much of the country, particularly in the northern half of the U.S., temperatures are still cold and often wet in March and April. Another big factor is past history in terms of how good or bad the team has been in recent seasons and, especially, how high the expectations are for the coming season.

A year ago, OU fans and families “Packed the Palace (on the Prairie),” the catchphrase that has come to be the fun name for 99-year old Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, at the behest of new head coach Brent Venables. A record near-capacity crowd of 75.360 was in attendance on a sunny and warm spring afternoon in Norman for the 2022 OU spring game.

Oklahoma was the most attended college spring game anywhere in the country last year. Next closest was 68,000 at Georgia, 62,000 at Penn State and 60,000 for the 2022 Ohio State spring game.

There weren’t as many fans at the OU spring game in the second season of the Venables era, largely because of colder temperatures. But the nearly 54,400 who did attend ranks as the sixth-best spring game attendance nationally in 2023. That was larger than Georgia and Clemson and 20,00 more than at USC, the new college domicile of one Lincoln Riley.

The last two Oklahoma spring games have included special events for fans and the added attraction of unveiling life-size bronze statues of Sooner Heisman winners Baker Mayfield (in 2022) and Kyler Murray this year.

The format of the annual Red-White Oklahoma spring game has evolved over the years. Sixty years ago the spring game at OU featured players from that year’s Sooner team matched up against a team of former OU stars.

In recent year’s past, the game pitted the No. 1 offense against the No. 2 defense and vice versa in a special scoring system with points awarded for such things as third-down stops on defense, defensive turnovers and tackles for loss. And on offense: points awarded for touchdowns, first downs, plays of 30 yards or more and other positive outcomes.

This year, Venables changed things up and matched the offensive unit vs. defensive unit over four 12-minute quarters. A special scoring system enabled both sides to accumulate points based on a variety of offensive and defensive outcomes. And it wasn’t a low-scoring affair with the defense coming out on top of the offense by a score of 84 to 82.