Why Pat Fitzgerald's cell phone comment about college football attendance is right and wrong
Thank you, Pat Fitzgerald. You gave us something to talk about during this awkward post-media days/pre-fall camp period.
The Northwestern coach used his time at Big Ten Media Days to share a gripe he has about college football attendance — in 2018 it reached its lowest point in 22 years and suffered its biggest year-to-year drop in 34 years — and really society’s attentiveness as a whole.
The SEC isn’t immune to that, either. In 2017, the conference suffered an average drop of 2,400 fans per game, which was the largest decrease of any Power 5 conference. That number dropped another 1,080 fans in 2018 with 11 of 14 SEC teams reporting a year-to-year decrease in average home attendance from 2017 to 2018 (Georgia reported the same exact attendance while LSU improved the most by 2,313).
So what’s at the center of that college football/society-wide issue?
Cell phones. At least they are according to Fitzgerald:
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald puts NCAA football’s attendance problem and really society’s eventual downfall in perspective:
— Rick Tarsitano (@RickTarsitano) July 20, 2019
This topic has created an interesting debate the past few days, and it seems to be sort of a “get off my lawn vs. millennials” battle. I get that.
But I actually think Fitzgerald can be right and wrong about what he said. Let me explain.
I agree with Fitzgerald’s point that we as a society don’t soak in experiences as much as we should. It’s all about how it’s going to look on social media. Whether that’s posting foodie pics, taking videos at concerts or getting perfect shots of epic nature views, that’s prioritized more than the in-person experience. I’m guilty of that, too. Look at my Instagram account and you’ll see proof.
I’ll disagree with him that it’s a generational thing, though. My mom and mother-in-law post pictures on social media far more than I do, and I feel like I’m the one who has to tell them to get off their phones. It’s just our society as a whole.
Ah, but back to football. Rather, back to college football attendance.
I agree that phones have contributed to the decline of fans in games. There are more distractions than ever, and the need to stay up to date on things outside of whatever sporting event we’re consuming is more apparent than ever. Most stadiums don’t allow for fans to even get a signal to get on social media, and call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s an accident. They want their fans engaged, and I can’t say I blame them.
But cell phones as the No. 1 contributor for the decline in college football attendance? That’s a lazy argument.
That completely ignores the multi-billion dollar TV contracts that conferences signed to make sure they can broadcast more games than ever. The TV product has never been better. Big screen TVs have never been cheaper. Yet college football prices continue to increase.
The bubble is bursting and whether Fitzgerald wants to acknowledge it or not, that’s the real No. 1 problem that needs to be addressed. I realize there’s no quick fix. For nearly every Power 5 school, football is the biggest revenue sport. They want to sell out every home game to help pay for the rest of the roughly 20+ scholarship sports that are under the university umbrella, and football only gives them a handful of chances every year to do that.
Maybe athletic directors underestimated how elastic college football attendance was in this generation. The sport’s popularity definitely isn’t the problem. Fans are consuming more hashtag content than ever.
That’s part of why Fitzgerald is right. Cell phones allow them to do that. Fans who are at a game want to do one of the following things:
- A) Follow along with everyone on Twitter
- B) Check their bets
- C) Look at other scores around the country
- D) Post on social media about being at a game
- E) All the above
All of those things are difficult to do while consuming a game in person. It incentivizes staying at home and saving money (well, at least until those bets go bust).
I give Fitzgerald credit because I can’t stand when people present a problem without providing a solution. Or at least an idea of a solution. His solution to society’s problems and college football’s attendance problem is simply to take the phones away. I’m sure at the root of that is some frustration of how dependent his job now is on cell phones. I don’t necessarily agree with or think that getting rid of phones altogether is a realistic solution, but it’s at least an idea.
To me, this is still basic supply and demand. College football as a whole hasn’t had to deal with this in a typical way. I can’t help but wonder if the in-game experience has been maxed out. Like, after decades of improving it — more comfortable seating, more concession options, bigger HD video boards, etc. — the consumer decided that it’s no longer worth it to pay such a premium price when the in-game experience doesn’t necessarily coincide with continually rising ticket prices.
My solution? It’s not one that athletic directors will like, but it is simple.
Drop ticket prices a bit and see what happens. Offer more family-friendly deals. Don’t make your fans pay an arm and a leg for parking. Do something more interactive like Clemson does where fans are allowed to go onto the field after the game (I realize that has to be extremely regulated and it wouldn’t be something that could be instituted immediately).
Dare I say the alcohol ban that was finally lifted in the SEC will help attendance. It certainly was done with declining attendance in mind, either to improve the in-stadium experience or to pull in some extra revenue to make up for the decline in ticket sales.
Shoot, maybe making WiFi more accessible in stadiums would help. Some have already done that. I bet more will continue to do that while others stay opposed to that in fear making fans even less attentive.
One thing we know is that athletic directors can’t just get up to the podium and blame cell phones for everything. Fitzgerald can. It’s not his job to take action against a problem that’s college football-wide. That falls on athletic directors who have jobs that depend largely on the college football bottom line.
Fitzgerald presented a problem. It’ll be interesting to see who comes up with the best solution.