Published July 26, 2012 - 4:15pm
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I grew up in New York. I watched the New Year’s Day bowls and a lot of Notre Dame and Miami games. I attended a college without a football team. I currently live in a city with an ACC school. I am the “casual fan” of college football. And the absolute worst thing college football leaders could do is change their product to attract people like me.
Recently I saw a column on a mainstream sports website—I refuse to advertise the site or the writer by naming them here—claiming the forthcoming college football playoff is the greatest thing ever, because it means a casual fan like him could finally get into the game. In this context, “casual fan” doesn’t mean impartial well-wishers like me, but people who view sports first and foremost as a mechanism for quasi-legal gambling. A playoff means a bracket, which means millions of ill-informed office workers can now fill out a pool sheet and pretend to like college football for a month. No need to worry about watching the regular season or learning about the individual teams.
There’s nothing wrong with being a casual fan. But no sport can survive depending on them—with one big exception that I’ll get to in a moment. In every industry, the goal is to develop a loyal customer base supplemented by marginal consumers. In sports, however, particularly sports broadcasting, there’s a tendency to elevate and exaggerate the importance of these marginal consumers. This is why, for instance, it seems nobody can talk about the NFL for more than a few seconds without gushing over the league’s enormous television ratings. This was no doubt a selling point for the college football playoff—we can draw numbers to rival the Super Bowl!
But television ratings, especially for events like the Super Bowl, don’t translate into customer loyalty. A good chunk of the Super Bowl audience are “casual fans” who may be more interested in the commercials than the game itself. Note that while NFL ratings have never been higher, more and more clubs are struggling to sell out stadiums. It’s easy to attract millions of marginal consumers for a product you effectively give away on television. When they have to start paying for tickets, parking and concessions, many “casual” fans are nowhere to be found.
College football has the advantage over the NFL—indeed, over all professional sports—in that there’s an eager built-in audience of college students and alumni. They have extra incentive to support football, since a strong football program enhances the reputation of the school, and thus the subjective perception of the value of the school’s (overpriced) degrees. This dynamic really doesn’t play in professional sports. Yes, cities may tie their identities to pro teams—think the Green Bay Packers—but nobody thinks more highly of Boston just because the Patriots do well.
The casual fan is, by nature, a band wagon jumper. They temporarily support those teams that are currently successful or receive a lot of media attention. They’re not the sort of people you can build a financially stable product with because they’re so fickle. Again, this isn’t a knock on the casual fan. As marketplace consumers, they seek to maximize their enjoyment of a given product. It’s always more fun to watch the good teams. But the producers of college football, the schools, need a base of loyal customers who will support the program through down-cycles. If all marketing efforts are geared towards the casual fan, you set yourself up for perpetual failure.
You also produce an inferior product. Every time you alter the game in an attempt to placate the casual fan, you’re effectively telling your loyal customers they aren’t good enough. Again, this tends to happen with more frequency in the NFL, where the league is hyper-sensitive to media criticism.
It’s important to remember that the media is in the storytelling business. Sports are a secondary concern at best. Particularly if you work for a national broadcaster like ESPN or NBC, your goal is to attract as many eyeballs as possible by telling a compelling story—even if you have to manipulate reality to get it. That’s why there is one major sporting event that can thrive off an audience of mostly casual fans—the Olympics. This is the exception that proves the rule. The Olympics amalgamate niche sports and repackage them as stories any ignoramus can consume. It provides a grim cautionary tale for those who would have college football worship at the altar of the casual fan.