We're two games into the 2011 campaign. Two home games. Say what you will about the results on the field, good, bad, or otherwise. But a more pressing concern for me is this: nobody's going to the games.
Let me backtrack a little before I get too deep. People are showing up to the Carrier Dome. For the Thursday night season opener on September 1 against Wake Forest, the announced attendance was 40,833. Against FCS foe Rhode Island this past weekend, that announced number fell to 36,421. So, for you tens of thousands of people who attended either (or both) of those games, this post isn't directed at you. For the rest of you, well, it kind of is. But really, I think my bigger target is SU Athletics.
As a fan, there are a number of factors that work into your consideration as to whether to attend a football game. Once you weigh all the different factors and each of their costs/benefits combined into an overall cost/benefit, you come up with your decision whether to attend. And I'll work from the premise that you're all reasonable, logical people, such that if you decided to attend a game it was because the benefits outweighed the costs, and if you decided to stay home it was because the costs outweighed the benefits. That said, I submit to you that SU Athletics isn't doing enough to help drive that cost/benefit analysis in its favor.
I don't doubt that cost (in terms of dollars) is probably the biggest deciding factor on whether fans attend a game. There's the cost to get there (whether you're coming from Syracuse or San Diego), the cost to park, the cost to tailgate (assuming you like fun), the cost of admission, the cost of concessions, and the cost to get home. For a family, that's a lot of money, even in a good economy. Unfortunately, there's not much SU can do about a lot of that. And, in fact, I think they've had some good promotions: many season ticket packages are as cheap as $99; there are affordable mini-season packages; during the State Fair you could purchase $15 tickets to Wake Forest by visiting the SU Athletics booth and telling them the word of the day per the @suorangeempire twitter; and this past weekend many tickets were donated to the men & women of our Armed Forces.
This involves who we're playing, what day the game is, and what time of day. And really all of those things are "it is what it is." Your Big East opponents are who they are; in any two year period, all other Big East teams visit the Dome. That's a given. You're always gonna see one other BCS-conference team play in the Dome each year. And, because this is the landscape of college football, you're always gonna see one FCS team play in the Dome each year. SU Athletics has to continue to make deals with other schools to bring in quality opponents. Future Dome opponents include Northwestern, Boston College, Notre Dame, Penn State, Georgia Tech, and Navy. But often times I think it's the when that really plays a difference with the fans. Let's face it; the Thursday 8pm start probably cut into the attendance for the Wake Forest game. For the locals, it was late enough to work some/most/all of the day, attend the game, and still be able to make it home to sleep and go to work Friday (ha, suckers who didn't take Friday off!). But the out-of-towners were screwed unless they took time of from work or were unemployed. 8pm on a weeknight also wasn't conducive for families with younger children with early bedtimes. And then when you look at those Saturday games and those work/family excuses start to fade, you get a whole new host of excuses: the weather's nice and we need to get stuff done before it gets cold & snowy out; there's seven other games on TV I also wanna watch at the same time; etc. etc. etc. And don't get me started on nooners. Unfortunately, SU Athletics can do next to nothing when it comes to the when of games; this is predominently controlled by TV: which network it's on and when they want to show it. Hard to argue with TV when TV is your best friend in collegiate athletics. TV gets your school exposure, while also filling your school's coffers. Without TV, no revenue; without revenue, no team.
The Product on the Field
You hate to say it, but it's true. When the team doesn't play well, the on-the-fence fans don't show up. And the fans who have left the bandwagon won't return until the team "proves itself." So thus, we are still dealing with the Greg Robinson Effect; we lost a lot of supporters during those dark years, and there are still former fans out there waiting for the team to turn the corner before they reinvest their time & money into attending games. But let's be real here: this team won eight games last year, including the Pinstripe Bowl! Isn't that enough to wipe away the years of disappointment under Greggers? We have a quarterback in Ryan Nassib who can, and is, putting up some big numbers already this season. We have some exciting receivers and backs. We have a young defense coming into its own, despite some key injuries. Now, none of these kids are winning Heismans or getting drafted #1, but there is some damn good talent out there. If your expectations are higher, then maybe you'll just never be satisfied. The product on the field is good, and it will keep getting better.
It was hard for me to sit in the Dome this past Saturday and be happy with what I saw. Yes, I was happy with the final score; a win is a win, no matter who it's against and no matter how it was that the final score got to be the way it did. But you look around the Dome, and that 36,000 announced crowd was never there. There were large empty pockets in the Dome, which look absolutely horrific on TV. Imagine the casual fan tuning in on TWCS or SNY, seeing the above-pictured O-Zone as empty as it was (for some context, that picture was taken with about 9 minutes left in the first quarter). This casual fan must think that O-Zone is short for "Oh-you-actually-thought-fans-showed-up-here-Zone." The Dome needs to do something to get that filled for every game, particularly with these Friday night prime-time national TV broadcasts coming up. Now, I understand why people didn't go to the game this past weekend: a beautiful Saturday afternoon in September ("How many more good days will we have left?"), an FCS opponent, a 4:30 start, it's on TV, why go? Some say the easy answer is to not have the game on TV, or to black it out locally. I think that would be fatal; the casual fan isn't gonna decide to all of a sudden go to the game just because it all of a sudden won't be on his TV. He'll watch another game, or go to something else. And in the meantime, you piss off a bunch of actual fans who, for whatever reason, can't go to the game. Rather, I think the solution for the problem presented this past Saturday was to provide free tickets. Pack the Dome. Make a big event out of it. It does major, positive things to the psyche of the team and the fanbase to see a Dome filled to capacity. I've got to think that the financial hit SU Athletics might feel at the gate would be made up by, in part, concessions, and in part, by return or new customers in subsequent games. If you flip on the TV and see a capacity-filled Dome, that's gonna plant a seed in your mind that hey, maybe I should go check out a game this season. If you're in the Dome for free, and have a positive experience, you might decide to come back for another game. Or buy season tickets next year. If you can show the people what they've been missing out on, you can gain new customers.
I just sometimes worry that SU Athletics is too worried about the bottom line right now, instead of investing in the future. And I think they missed a golden opportunity to make something huge out of that Rhode Island game. I'll tell you this, though: if nationwide television audiences on ESPN see lots of silver in the Carrier Dome when they tune in to the West Virgina and South Florida games later this season, that will do more harm to the program than the good we get for having national TV exposure.
So in closing, I really hope someone at SU Athletics works on fixing the attendance problem. I'm no expert in this stuff, and I don't know how feasible my ideas are. Common sense makes me think they would work, but there could be a lot more to it than that. In the meantime, if you're one of the people not attending football games, ask yourself what it will take for you to join us. Do your cost/benefit analysis. If the costs still win out, let SU Athletics know -- be proactive in letting the people who can change something know what needs to be changed to get people under the Teflon roof. We'd love to have you.
Unless you plan on starting or participating in The Wave. Then, don't bother.