The average attendance at FBS football games has dropped every year since 2013. Last year’s figure marked the lowest since 1996. That sounds like a problem.
Pat Fitzgerald’s solution is to take away your phones.
The Northwestern coach declared at Big Ten Media Days that smartphones were the “root cause” of the attendance decline. We look at our devices instead of the world around us, basically.
While Fitzgerald might have a point about our hard-wired way of life, that does nothing to solve the problem. If anything, I would guess some folks go to games just to take smartphone selfies with Pistol Pete or the Sooner Schooner, all the better to prop up their social media images.
I would argue that college athletic administrators embrace technology to stop the attendance leak, not scorn it.
I would argue they do several things.
1. Invest in bandwidth
Fans want to post those selfies on Instagram. They want to tweet about the game. They want to keep track of other games.
Schools must make this convenient by offering free WiFi inside the stadium. The University of Oklahoma figured this out last spring when it announced fans throughout Owen Field, not just those in the south end zone, should have wireless by the 2019 opener.
One more thing: There must be enough bandwidth that fans interested in catching a few plays of Alabama-LSU on their phones can do so without the picture freezing with the pass in midair.
2. Set up viewing stations
At OU-Kansas in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2005, more media watched the end of the USC-Notre Dame “Bush Push” game than whatever was happening with the Sooners and Jayhawks. We were able to do so because there were multiple TV monitors in the Arrowhead Stadium press box.
I’ve wondered ever since then why fans in general admission weren’t offered the same courtesy. I’ve wondered why schools couldn’t set up a bank of monitors on the stadium concourse, near one of the concession areas, so fans could absorb the drama of other games.
It’s one of the reasons those fans choose to stay home — their remote zips them to whatever game is hottest.
Schools will never beat the comforts of home — that’s a more lopsided battle every year — but they can at least try to combat them.
3. Put the video board to better use
Schools run scores of other games on video and ribbon boards, but they should do better than that. They should show highlights, and lots of them.
The timeout official steps onto the field? That’s a cue to show big plays from big games.
Cut the audio so the public address announcer can thank game sponsors. Put the highlights in a corner of the board so the university’s commercial still gets main play.
Just so long as fans feel they’re not missing out on the rest of college football. So long as fans aren’t bored to death by the tedium of media timeouts.
4. Allow fans to come and go as they please
You want to revisit your tailgate at halftime? Maybe dash over to the closest pub? Use a cleaner, less-crowded restroom in the nearest academic building? There should be no preventing this.
There should be no preventing your return to general admission after you have satisfied any needs.
5. Take a cue from the Texas Longhorns
Athletic director Chris Del Conte announced a 30% drop in several concession prices last year for Longhorns home football games. It wasn’t Atlanta Falcons generous, but soft drinks, bottled water, popcorn, hot dogs, nachos and candy all got cheaper.
ADs can’t compete with the refrigerator and microwave back home, but they’ve got to make an effort. Selling beer at games was a start. Now it’s time to do something about the prices.
6. Stop the price-gouging beyond the stadium
If schools want to preserve prime parking space for their biggest donors, that’s their right. But they can’t go charging $25 for a spot that might be on campus but is still a quarter-mile walk to the stadium.
For that matter, schools should work with municipalities to keep off-campus parking options reasonable. Cap the charge at $10 and ticket any violators.
Just as important: Work with hoteliers to cap their weekend rates and stop this nonsense.
You can stay at the Waco Residence Inn the night Baylor hosts Stephen F. Austin on Aug. 31, but it’ll cost you $256 before taxes.
7. Adjust the schedule accordingly
If you are Del Conte, OU’s Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma State’s Mike Holder or Tulsa’s Derrick Gragg, you’d better give fans an excuse to leave their bubbles. Fielding a really good, really entertaining team is Priority 1, but that’s on your coach.
What you can do is offer a really good game. Bring in a nonconference opponent your fans are willing to spend their money and convenience on.
8. Adjust ticket prices accordingly
I realize schedules have holes sometimes, and you must fill them with non-FBS opponents. How’s this for reasonable: Discount tickets for that game, and for that year’s season-ticket package, anytime you host an FCS team.
9. Make this personal
Sagging attendance figures indicate a disconnect. Folks are choosing to make less costly investments in their favorite college football teams, and less personal ones.
So schools must try to reconnect, to make it more personal again.
I’m not suggesting postgame autograph sessions with players — these kids are busy enough as it is. But how about opening a chunk of spring practice to the public? It’s not like any coach ever game-planned in March.
How about opening a scrimmage or two in August? This was routine not all that long ago, before coaches’ paranoia won out. Make it so again.
10. If all that fails ...
Bring in Fitzgerald for a TED Talk.