"I think our average attendance is going to be slightly under 100,000 for the first time in a while," said Hamilton in an interview with the News Sentinel.
The Vols have averaged more than 100,000 per game since 1996, when stadium expansion grew the maximum attendance from 91,902 to 102,544. Attendance is based on tickets sold and support staff in the stadium for the game. The actual attendance figure for 2009 is not yet available.
"As I look around the league at different schools and as I watch games throughout the country this year, you have some of that nationally," said Hamilton, citing the economic downturn. "So it wasn't to be totally unexpected. Certainly we want to have our numbers back above the 100,000 mark."
Donations to UT's Athletic Department are still strong despite the sagging turnstile numbers at Neyland Stadium, he said, adding that UT's Athletic Department received four pledges of more than $1 million and two pledges of more than $100,000 in the past week.
A recent study of Neyland Stadium patrons showed 65 percent of the people in the south end zone come to only one game per season, he said.
"If you're making a choice to come to one game a year, that's probably a really tough financial decision in your home, and I think it's reflective of the environment we're in right now," Hamilton said.
High-level donors possibly don't face as difficult a decision.
"There are still a pocketful of folks who are having success even in this economy, so some of those gifts are coming from those who are having those kinds of successes," Hamilton said.
He said many of the empty seats in Neyland Stadium are a result of traveling fans of opposing schools not making the trip to Knoxville as they once did. UT has little time to resell returned tickets, usually just a few days.
"Turning those individual game tickets becomes a bit more problematic right now," Hamilton said.
The athletic director said he believes that student attendance is still strong despite empty seats for some games. He said students have had to adapt to three methods of ticket pickup in three years.
He's pleased with the current method of student ticket distribution, which allows the Athletic Department to sell tickets that aren't picked up by students. However, even that has been a challenge during a recession.
"As the economy has suffered a little bit, it's been hard to turn those volume of tickets in what typically turns out to be a 48-hour period before kickoff," Hamilton said.
Neyland Stadium is in the midst of a major renovation, in part to combat the growing number of fans who stay home to watch sporting events on high-definition television with surround sound speakers.
Long term, Hamilton said UT is considering a second jumbo screen and more concourses to enhance the fans' game experience.
There's also the old-fashioned draw for a program that has had two losing seasons since 2005.
"We're going to try winning again, how about that?" Hamilton said. "I think as we win more games and continue to put a more competitive product back on the field, (ticket sales) will take care of some of itself because of the strong fan base we have."