As we head into the start of the season, you may have seen some articles lamenting a troubling trend in college football right now, the death of the student section. USA TODAY wrote about it. So did the Chicago Tribune. ESPN did not too long ago themselves. All are drawing attention to the fact that fewer and fewer actual college students are going to college football games, despite the sport's explosive popularity, and unprecedented profitability, across the country.
Is the game itself is so popular, why would students, who presumably have some of the best access and most emotionally at stake, not want to go? Is it because many stadiums don't sell beer? It is because of the cost? Is it because many stadiums have poor Wi-Fi, and who wants to go somewhere where you can't check Twitter or Facebook?
As athletic departments spend money on consultants to get to the bottom of this, let me help you. This is not a complicated problem.
Let's check out this quote, from the Chicago Tribune:
In Champaign, Illinois coach Tim Beckman envisions himself leading the team onto the field at Memorial Stadium with rowdy students in the stands. Yet entering his third season, he's not sure what the turnout will be.
"In the two years I've been here," Beckman said, "it's something definitely that I'd like to get better."
Now, let's put on our thinking caps here. Has student attendance lagged because those damn millennials can't go six seconds without Instragamming their lunch , and thus shun any location without Wi-Fi? Or might the situation be a little simpler?
In the last four years, student ticket sales have dropped from 7,475 in 2010 to 3,622 last season.
"It's W's," Beckman said. "I'm not silly."
Yes, it's almost as if college students would rather pay money to see a football team that doesn't suck. Colorado experienced a 58% drop in student attendance for a similar reason, and Kansas saw 74% of their student tickets go unused. Illinois hasn't had a winning season since 2011, a year when they went 7-6, after losing six games in a row. Illinois has won eight games or more only twice since 2000 (2007, 2001). It's mostly been a bad football team.
But it's more than that. Not only has Illinois not been very good, they're not even giving their fans a chance to watch somebody else who is good. Look at their home schedule for this season:
If you are a casual fan, outside of the Penn State game (and Penn State may only be a 7-5 team this year), what game excites you there? Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State are all on the road.
Out of conference, Illinois has only hosted one BCS caliber squad since 2008, a 2011 game against Arizona State. They also played Missouri twice in St. Louis, and played Washington once in Chicago, during that span. UNC is scheduled to visit in 2016, but that's it for the decade. Sure are a lot of FCS squads on that schedule, though! If you do that, you may win a few games, but you're going to leave yourself at the mercy of the quirks of the Big Ten schedule. When the big boys don't come to Champaign, your home schedule is going to look mighty bleak.
Illinois isn't the only school in the league to struggle with this. The problems with Michigan's student ticket situation have been well documented. While the administration carries much of the blame with the way they screwed students out of their spots, and the fact that the team has underachieved plays no small role, just look at who they are hosting this season:
That's not a premium slate for a major Big Ten team. Not one of the top four teams in the league comes to Ann Arbor, and your best non-conference game is a Utah team that's probably not making a bowl. Awesome!
What about a non Big Ten team, like, Florida? Turns out, Florida has also struggled to convince students to sit around and watch their boring team play Idaho, a school where the average age of a season ticket holder is 58. Outside of home games against LSU and South Carolina, which should sell out no matter how moribund the Gators look, Florida fans will be treated to Idaho, Eastern Michigan, Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky, and Missouri, with a neutral site game against Georgia in Jacksonville, a good 70 miles from campus. Be still my beating heart.
What about Nebraska? Again from the Tribune:
"You can tell by watching on TV and when you're there that there's a big gaping hole in the southeast corner of the stadium," said Connor Happer, a 22-year-old senior journalism student at Nebraska. "The last 10 rows aren't filled."
So The U is an interesting game, but the rest of that slate is even worse than the other two.
Why do all of these Big Ten schedules suck? In large part, because of the unbalanced division structure, and because of realignment. There are six teams in the Big Ten that are really going to draw crowds as "premier games". That's Ohio State, Michigan State (for now), Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Penn State. Four of those teams are in the East, so if you're a western squad (like an Illinois and Nebraska), you could skip almost all of those in one year. If you're a Northwestern fan starting school this season, you'll never see Ohio State come to Evanston. The Buckeyes don't come back until 2019.
It's no wonder some ADs, like Indiana's Fred Glass, have talked about having a 10 game Big Ten league schedule.
Why so long? Because the league now needs to squeeze games between Maryland and Rutgers in the mix, squads that could provide novelty factor at first, but lack the historical cachet of other Big Ten teams, or the star power and tradition of a Nebraska. The newcomers will drive millions of dollars of TV money to the league (and to the schools), but they're not going to provide another reason for kids to show up.
Our friend Kevin Trahan wrote another reason why student attendance may be declining at Forbes: In the name of maximizing television revenue, many programs, from Alabama to Michigan, are moving home games hours away from their campus, further driving students to the margins. When you're counting on ramen noodles as a primary caloric source, you're not going to spend the money to drive to Dallas or Atlanta for a regular season game. We can already see that teams that play regularly have to play games at off campus venues struggle with attendance, and that's when the stadium is in the same city. Playing multiple states away isn't going to win you any 20 year old fans.
Many ADs have talked about the competition they face from TVs (in part from their own creation), the fickleness of kids in general, or about concerns about the gameday "experience". At Florida, they put together a 13 member council to discuss attendance included a whopping two undergraduate students, and reached the conclusion that a boring experience and poor WiFI were the culprits. that You're right, in order to convince kids to go, you need to provide them something better than their TV at home. Spending money on improved Wi-Fi, or selling beer, or allowing tailgating; all of that helps. It's nice to be able to tweet a picture from the stadium, play cornhole in the parking lot, sit with their friends, and not feel like their seats are cordoned far away from the action with the rest of the poors, so rich people can sit close. If schools have the capability to do these things, they should. Might as well put some of that network TV bounty towards something that students can tangibly use.
There are other options too. From the USA TODAY article:
Pitt heavily promotes student tailgates and markets discounted club level tickets to graduate students because it believes that group is prime to be targeted as potential donors. Last season, Memphis offered two free season tickets to every 2012-13 graduate and got an attendance pop of more than 4,000 per game. Florida has come up with several incentives, including discounted tickets for recent graduates and the opportunity to win a "VIP" experience going behind the scenes on game day or to be part of the pre-game tunnel.
Iowa is even doing a tuition giveaway to kids who buy student tickets. Finding ways to keep tickets affordable for new alumni is an excellent idea, and if your school can't hang their hat on the quality of the on the field product (sup, Memphis), then getting creative is an absolute must.
But this isn't rocket science. At the end of the day, assuming this is about Instagram or access to booze is falling into the same old tropes of millennial bashing. You want college students to go to football games? Make going to football games fun. The best way to make going to football games fun? Make sure that the actual football games are of high quality, and are accessible to regular students.
If that means you gotta take a financial haircut and schedule one less Directional State squad, so be it. If it means you start to consider more than just television markets when you look at conference expansion, so be it.
If the games don't suck, people will go. WiFi or not.