Good morning! Did I expect to start my workweek by getting good and truly #mad #online about Northwestern?
No. But our universe truly contains wonders. And here we are.
A Northwestern grad has opinions. Let’s discuss them.
Northwestern Pinkerton Agent, uh, I mean, Head Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked about declining college football attendance. If you were on Twitter at all on Monday, you probably saw his response:
Okay. Let’s talk about this.
First, spending less time staring at your phone is good life advice, generally. I am terrible at this. It frustrates my wife, sets a bad example for my children, and means I spend too much time on Twitter, which, unless I see a really funny tweet that day, usually bums me out. We would all be better off if we spent a little less time #online.
Is this the reason people aren’t going to college football games as much anymore? Maybe if you’re a Facebook Commenter come to life or something. Maybe if the KIDS THESE DAYS just RESPECTED THE TROOPS a little bit more and put down their Fortnites, THIS PROBLEM, LIKE ALL PROBLEMS, WOULD BE SOLVED.
In the real world? lol c’mon man. This isn’t even close to the problem.
There are a lot of factors at play here that impact Northwestern, specifically, but if there is one tiny graphic I wish every football coach, administrator and pundit could understand, it’d be this one. You may have seen it before.
I feel like we tend to talk about the ability to watch lots of college football games at home as a new development, when it really isn’t. NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma was decided back in 1984. ESPN2 started broadcasting college football games back in 1994, regional networks started showing college football in the mid 1990s, and we had networks devoted to college sports coverage back in the early 2000s. Even HD TV has been around for over 20 years. If you’re under 35 and you had basic cable, you’ve been able to watch a lot of college football basically your entire life.
But the ability to watch a zillion college football games well, on a huge TV…that’s relatively new! It’s possible no common consumer good has gotten better and cheaper like TVs.
I have a 50 inch smart TV in my living room. The picture quality is awesome, it has a slew of apps built right in, and without getting up from my couch, I can switch to my XBox One, which runs even more apps. It gets more channels than I know what to do with. I bought the thing at Sam’s Club for like, 250 bucks.
The quality of the home television setup, both in terms of the sheer volume of college football games one can watch (and at once, thanks to myriad commercial breaks), and in the quality of picture and sound, is only getting better, and it’s an experience that isn’t limited to the premium consumer. These days, most folks can afford a nice TV. You only have to buy it once, after all, and you can have it for a long time.
Take another look at that chart, though. You see what else has gotten much cheaper? Another than computer stuff and toys? Not much. You see what’s gotten a lot more expensive? College!
Folks around my age (I’m 32) graduated college at about the worst possible time, and may never recover those lost wages. It’s a generation worried about debt, long-term earning potential, and will generally need to be a bit more frugal with their leisure budgets.
So if watching a college football game on TV is cheaper and better than even before, and if the tickets are expensive (they are), and hotels and travel are expensive (they are), and if the games are often bad (they are)…you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why young people may be less likely to buy football tickets.
Let’s talk about Northwestern for a second
I don’t think Fitz was talking about Northwestern, specifically, when he went on his rant. Reported attendance at Northwestern has actually gone up over the last three seasons. But from 2016-2018, their average per game attendance is around 38,200 a game. That’s a pretty small number for a Big Ten school, but Ryan Field is small (official capacity: 47,130). But if more people are showing up, it’s clear there is still room to grow.
Do you want to watch Northwestern football, live, from Ryan Field, in 2019?
If you buy season tickets directly from the school, and aren’t a graduate or otherwise connected, it’ll probably cost around $315, for seven home games (there are limited packages going for $230, but those seats are not great). That’s $45 a ticket, not including parking, food, or anything else. If you’re paying to park and have a beverage and a hot dog, you could easily spend $70 on your afternoon at Ryan Field.
Here’s Northwestern’s home schedule for 2019:
You can’t buy a single game ticket for the Ohio State game, you can only get that if you buy a season ticket pass, Northwestern’s attempt to limit Ohio State fans from completely taking the place over. I think the most charitable reading of that schedule shows there might be…three games there that might be fun to watch? Games worth spending $45, or more, to watch? Maybe not even that many.
I don’t think this is especially awful for a Northwestern football schedule, either. They’ve hosted Stanford and Notre Dame in the past, and will get Duke in the future, but the conference schedule changes too. That ratio between good and meh games sounds about right.
There’s also the quality of Northwestern football, itself. Students of college football history know that for decades, Northwestern was absolute garbage, one of the worst teams in college football. They were “thinking about leaving the Big Ten for the Ivy League” bad. They were “sell home games to Ohio State” bad. And the school seemed to pride itself on this. After all, how strong, academically, could a school that was actually good at football be?
Things were so bad, it led to my absolute favorite burn in college football history. From the Detroit Free Press, in 1981:
PAWWWWWL THAT INTERSTATE AIN’T PLAYED NOBODY
Anyway, Northwestern made a Rose Bowl in the 1995 season and extracted themselves from the dung heap of big time college football.
But is Northwestern actually, good at football? No, not really. Here are their S&P+ rankings since that Rose Bowl bid in 1995:
So over twenty years of Northwestern football has produced exactly one team that was *actually* one of the 25 best that season. They’ve rarely been terrible, they’ve rarely been excellent. They’re….just okay. But because the previous 30 years lowered expectations so much (and also just maybe because every third sportswriter went there), nobody really complains too much.
But it’s harder to sell lots of tickets for “just okay”, especially since we know that the home schedules typically aren’t that great.
We also gotta talk a little bit about Evanston here.
For one, and I say this with love as somebody who lives just a few miles down 90/94, the weather sucks. Ryan Field is just off Lake Michigan, and come late October, there’s nothing to protect you from that stupid wind. It’s one thing to pay a lot of money to watch an average, mostly forgettable football team play Minnesota. It’s another thing to do that when it’s 44 degrees and raining.
Plus, we gotta talk about the school itself. Northwestern’s undergraduate enrollment is less than half of the next smallest Big Ten school. It’s a selective, private institution, pulling kids from all over the country, many of whom will carry allegiances to different schools. It sits right next to a world-class city, so students have a gazillion other options for their entertainment time. And oh yeah, the school has a sometimes frosty relationship with the city and the team sucked so much for so long that it enjoys very little in the way of sidewalk support. And what little sidewalk support exists, it evaporates the farther south you go.
So, in review, we have a smallish, academically orientated, rich-kid private school just north of Chicago. Historically, they were one of the worst college football programs in the country, until they upgraded themselves to just average. Their schedules are just okay, the weather is bad, the tickets aren’t cheap, and driving there can be a huge pain in the butt.
Sure, let’s blame cell phones. That’s the culprit here.
Lest we forget, College football’s leadership decided to make the sport a TV product over the last 20ish years. They built schedules around TV (even the Big Ten is playing games on Friday nights because TV said so, even though no actual person wants this). They built conference membership around TV. They built the College Football Playoff around TV. And they made gobs and gobs and gobs of money on TV.
And now they have the audacity to complain when people decide to just watch the game on TV?
There are a lot of headwinds that will make it difficult to reverse attendance declines. But you cannot make progress if you cannot diagnose the problems. The expensive consultants will talk about the need for WiFi, and boutique food options and expensive changes to the stadium experience, but at the end of the day, if you have a good product at an affordable price, people will want to be a part of it.
Younger fans do not have the money to spend like folks did a few decades ago, and now have a cheaper alternative, one the sport’s leaders helped encourage.
Administrators can either make changes with those fans in mind, or they can blame the fans and holler about cell phones.
Northwestern is supposed to be a good school. Just ask any Northwestern grad, after all.
I’m sure they’ll figure out the best move. Eventually.
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