Is College Football Attendance A Problem That Needs Fixing? Part Two

I talked in part one about how college football attendance isn’t some massive crisis, because it isn’t declining any more (and in some cases less) than any other major sport. I also noted that while the actual numbers on attendance aren’t terribly concerning, there are obvious problems when it comes to getting people to attend games in person.

I explained my own perspective on the problem briefly on Twitter but wanted to dive in a little bit further.

“Weather” or Not to Attend

Most college football games occur in these big old concrete bowls of stadiums that provide no protection in any way from any sort of climate that might make watching live football unpleasant.

90+ degree heat and/or 90+ percent humidity? Suck it up and sweat it out. Pouring rain? Better bring something to protect yourself – except an umbrella because those aren’t allowed. Cold, snowing or windy? Just bundle up and hope you can stay warm enough to not wish you stayed home.

If you’re lucky, you get to attend home games in a stadium that has concourses that both shield you partially from these elements and have nice enough amenities that you aren’t choosing between being physically comfortable and being able to enjoy the game.

Obviously, doing things like designing a stadium whose alignment is in tune with local wind and precipitation patterns, or which have amenities aimed at combating temperature extremes, is not the cheapest option in the world.

However, when you’re (re)designing a stadium, I’ll bet that if you took a fan vote about which options they would most want to have included, having a stadium that gets structural or technological assistance staying warm or cool would be very high in the final tally.

Eat Your Heart Out

I’ve had South Alabama as my frame of reference after spending five years with that as my nearest option for FBS football. They just completed their last season in Ladd-Peebles Stadium before trekking to the new and shiny Hancock-Whitney Stadium on campus, but Ladd is a shining example of the problems.

In addition to having zero protection from the elements in the rainiest city in the United States, the concessions are a horrific mess. Ladd-Peebles was a high school stadium for decades before South played there, but zero effort was made to upgrade the concessions to match the increased level of football on display.

The soda, popcorn, and hot dogs – assuming you made it to the concession stand after they finally got things ready and before they ran out – were often barely edible, let alone worth the several dollars per item that you would pay.

If you’re at a sporting event, odds are good that you’ll be there long enough that if you didn’t think to eat right before you left to get there, you’ll either eat while you’re there or wish you had.

In such scenarios, it would be nice if you had food and drink options that were good enough to be worth spending money on and also not so expensive that you need to reassess your entire budget prior to attending the game just in case.

Most concessions, in my experience, only meet one of those two criteria. You want concessions that go beyond a drink, plus hot dogs and nachos that are hopefully an edible texture and temperature? Better bring a $20 bill per person to the game.

Signal of the Times

Alright, so maybe adjusting the gameday setup to accommodate the elements and improving any aspect of your concessions just doesn’t seem worthwhile. There is also very little that anyone involved in this equation can do about the on-field product and how that plays out in terms of entertainment value.

Year-to-year fluctuations in the rostered talent of both your favorite team and each of their opponents are guaranteed to occur and have the biggest impact on whether or not each individual home game will be interesting enough to serve as the main attraction for four quarters.

Plenty of data and evidence support that a heavy majority of the people attending any game are casual fans who aren’t really going to care what’s going on in the game itself outside of an extremely good game, which necessitates other entertainment options to engage them.

There is definite validity to the argument that it’s challenging to add in-game entertainment since it means additional staffing, equipment, planning and other expenses without much guarantee of return on investment. What would really benefit you to invest in then?

Quality Wi-Fi capabilities. Pat Fitzgerald was foolish to boil the whole issue down to “kids and their phones”, but that’s not not an issue. Research suggests that the ability to have a robust experience on their mobile device isn’t the most important thing to fans, but it is the most important non-concessions aspect of off-field engagement and an area where fans are least satisfied.

Recreate A Tailgate, or Find Production Value Elsewhere

Clues for solving the crisis of getting and keeping people inside the stadium can always be obtained from the activity outside the stadiums.

There are numerous schools in recent years who thought it would be a good idea to put a bevy of restrictions on when, how and where fans are able to tailgate in order to encourage entry into the stadium, but it instead caused people to stop going.

The biggest draw of watching a football game at home is that you have trained professionals spending every second of a 3-4 hour broadcast making decisions for you about what camera angles to show you and when with the added bonus of high definition and slow motion.

This means there’s almost never a dull moment during these games. Even if there were never a commercial during the breaks, you’d have minimal downtime compared to the live experience just from having announcers and replays and unlimited other troves of video footage to fill those gaps.

When you are at a game in person, there’s no production crew putting graphic overlays of statistics and measurements in front of your eyes, no audio crew helping you hear the sounds of the game or announcers tossing out interesting analysis and anecdotes to fill in the dead spaces.

For die-hard fans, that’s just fine. They have some appreciation for all the hoopla, but understand the game and are invested enough in their team’s performance that those other details don’t mean as much. The downtime is not ideal for them but understood.

For the casual fans, there is no way you can go from the hyperproduced televised product that occurs in the comfort of their own home (or tailgate) to the complete lack of production value of the in-stadium experience and realistically expect a return customer.

At home, I have whatever climate I prefer, whatever food and drink I prefer, and a bathroom that’s never more than a commercial away with no wait time.

I have a game that is shown in its best form, with all of the uninteresting camera angles and game moments replaced with high-definition, slow-motion replay, mic’d up players and refs, and talking heads able to talk through the dead spots.

I have whatever internet and WiFi capabilities that I’ve paid for myself, and if for any reason my primary entertainment choice becomes uninteresting, I’ve got literally dozens of alternatives at my fingertips or very close by.

At a college football game, I can recreate nearly all of that with a tailgate, depending on exactly how much I want to invest in my setup. Once I go into the stadium, I’m giving all of that up and not gaining anything other than getting to experience a very compelling football game surrounded by likeminded fans – during the percentage of games where that actually occurs.

It sounds like a losing proposition to me.

It’s foolish to start drowning tailgating in restrictions as a way of getting people to commiserate inside the stadium rather than outside, especially if you aren’t going to compromise by investing in an effort to recreate any of that tailgate atmosphere inside the stadium so that fans don’t have to choose.

In part three, we’ll take a look into some hard data and figure out some concrete methods that could be worthwhile to make sure that the gameday experience of a college football game remains something that fans want to continue investing their money in.

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