TCFA

Posted Jan. 8, 2015

Oct 28, 2011

Our Loyalty is Being Tested


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On Oct. 13, 1990, my father and I embarked on a college football journey that I still remember, and remember quite fondly, to this very day.

The trip took us from our lovely hometown of Solon, Ohio, across the vast and flat expanse of western Ohio, through the even more vast and more flat expanse of eastern Indiana, all the way to the college football Mecca that is South Bend, Indiana.

We made the trip, of course, to see the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who were at the time flying high under the leadership of one Lou Holtz. Rocket Ismail was on that ’90 Irish team. So, too, was Rick Mirer, and Chris Zorich, and a whole bunch of other guys you probably remember. It was a damn fine squad, it really was. And their opponent that day, the Air Force Falcons, weren't too shabby either, boasting their typically maddening option attack and the strategic genius of coach Fisher DeBerry.

It figured to be fine game of football, and indeed, it turned out be exactly that.

But of course, my father and I weren't really there just for the football.

 We were there for the experience. The Notre Dame experience. The college football experience.

We were there for the Notre Dame Victory March. We were there for the Grotto and Touchdown Jesus and the Irish Guard. We were there for an October Saturday in South Bend, which is to say we were there to immerse ourselves in all of the wonder that is a college football Saturday at the very place that has shaped and built this game more than any other.

And let me tell you: The experience delivered.

It was, all things considered, a heck of a day. Which is why I still look back so fondly on it today.

But of course, even our greatest days on God’s green earth have their not-so-great moments, and so even our heck of a day at Notre Dame could not pass without blemish. It was a minor blemish, but an important blemish nonetheless, and it is a blemish that I'm guessing most of you have experienced as well, even if you've never been to South Bend, and even if you've never seen a game at Notre Dame Stadium.

That blemish is this: The bleacher "seats" at Notre Dame Stadium were ridiculously small and backbreakingly uncomfortable.

Which made watching the game somewhat of a chore, and which, by extension, made both my father and I happy to leave, and to watch the rest of the day’s games on that friendly box known as the television, when affairs on the field were finally settled.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: The whole day—including the resulting back pain—was certainly worth it.

The question I’m asking you today, however, is this: Given how much the college game has changed in the intervening 21 years, is it—and by “it,” I mean making the effort to see a live college football game—still worth it?

Is it still worth the money?

Still worth the inconvenience?

Still worth the time and effort?

Still worth the back pain?

Or is just easier to stay at home?

***

I'll just go ahead and say this right up front: It is a great deal more comfortable, and a great deal more convenient, and a great deal more affordable to watch college football from home or at the bar than it is to watch college football at, you know, a college football stadium.

That, my friends, is an undeniably true statement.

I know this. 

You know this. Anyone who regularly attends college football games knows this.

But apparently, there are handful of people out there who don’t know this. Those people are the athletic directors who rule this College Football Nation, because those are the folks who have done almost nothing—almost nothing at all—to make the college football gameday experience a more pleasant experience, a more comfortable experience, a more affordable experience, a more desirable experience, or a more competitive experience.

And a quick glance at the college football stadia of our great nation tells the whole story of how well this lack of effort—or perhaps more accurately, this lack of understanding about the state of American fandom—is going over.

There are the empty seats at Happy Valley. 

There are the empty seats down in Athens. 

There are of empty seats at Miami (more than usual, I mean), and a empty seats at Pitt (more than usual, I mean), and empty seats elsewhere, too.

Empty seats that are both noticeable and embarrassing when shown on television. Empty seats that, yes, used to be filled. Empty seats that are telling the tale of College Football Nation’s changing tastes when it comes to The Preferred Saturday Experience. Empty seats that should serve as a warning, if not a flat-out directive, to the powers-that-be in our great game.

That warning, and that directive, is this: College football fans, the most uber-loyal of all American sports fans, are nearing a breaking point.

***

Speaking to reporters this week during his weekly teleconference, Penn State coach Joe Paterno admitted that, yes, he's noticed the empty seats in the upper reaches of Beaver Stadium. He's noticed that the crowds, which just a couple years back would routinely approach 108,000, have dropped to 100,000, or 95,000, or 90,000. And he's noticed, too, that things aren’t quite as, well, lively as they used to be in the giant erector set they call Beaver Stadium.

And when asked why he thought this was happening—why one of the largest and most loyal fan bases in all of college football suddenly seems a great deal less large and a great deal less loyal—Paterno, to his credit, got right to the heart of the issue: The powers that be at Penn State, he said, are asking too much, at precisely the wrong time.

"The economy is not great," Paterno said. "It might not have been the best time for us to raise the prices on some of our seats, but we did. It probably had a bearing on it."

Yes, indeed, it has.

Penn State officials over the past year or so have been implementing the Seat Transfer & Equity Plan, or STEP for short, which can be described either as a way to make the season ticketing process more equitable or as a giant, potentially failed scheme to wring every last dollar out of every last fan that Penn State has (or, at least, has for now).

Under this plan, the more you "donate" to Penn State athletics, the better seats you get. It's a fairly bottom-line deal—one in which things such as "loyalty" apparently mean nothing at all. And so it has come to pass that some longtime Penn State season ticket holders—the people that quite literally built this program, the people who traveled to games both home and away for decades, the people who helped generate the money that allowed Penn State football become a national powerhouse—have found that their loyalty and their years of service and their unyielding support are simply not enough, and that if they want to keep those primo seats between the 40s they will have to open up their checkbook and send several hundred or several thousand more dollars to the folks in Penn State athletics.

Not surprisingly, some of them have decided that it just isn’t worth it.

Which is why some of them just aren't there any more.

They’ve decided not to pay. They’ve decided to stay home. They’ve decided to spend their money elsewhere, because they’ve decided that as much as they love Penn State football, and as much as they love college football, they simply can’t justify the cash outlay—for tickets, for parking (now $40 if you buy on gameday, by the way), for food, for drinks, for gas, for hotels ($300 per night for a crappy hotel, two-night minimum)—any longer.

And believe me: They're not alone.

While the STEP program is unique to Penn State, such football-focused shakedowns are cropping up all over the country. Athletic departments from coast to coast are realizing that there is more money to be made. The bean counters are doing the math and figuring out that packing a stadium with 100,000 old-timers and blue-collar fans and longtime loyalists doesn’t necessarily generate more money than not-quite-filling a stadium with 85,000 fans of the "right vintage." The powers that be have figured out, in other words, that, at the end of the day, they can just keep on raising prices, because some people will keep on paying.

As for those that don’t? Well, they’re no loss, and the empty seats up in the upper deck, well, they’re of no concern, either. Gameday experience be damned. There’s bills to pay.

The innocence has long given way to the arrogance. It's a money game now, folks. And the message is clear: Pay up or stay home.

***

Money isn't the only problem, of course.

There are other forces at work here, some of which can be pinned on college football as an institution, some of which are far beyond its control.

Let us start with the college football gameday experience itself—an experience that, partially because of television and partially because of the slow creep of professionalization and marketing B.S. into the game, has begun to feel a great deal less, well, collegiate.

There’s the piped in-music. There’s the increasingly frequent commercial breaks (don’t think I haven’t noticed, TV execs). There’s the all-too-forced “new” traditions and Nike ProCombat uniforms and games played at neutral sites in NFL stadiums for no good reason. There is conference realignment and its attendant fallout. There is the massive and frightening influence of ESPN, there are TV contracts demanding night games on Wednesdays that no right-thinking fan wants to attend, there is hype and hoopla and the general sell-out of anything and everything sacred.

It’s the game gone gonzo commercial, and sad to say, all of it seems to cast a pall over the Saturday proceedings.

Just when you’re in a groove, just when the action heats up, just when rivalry juices get following, just when you feel A True College Football Moment coming on, well, there’s a TV timeout. A TV time out that lasts forever. A TV timeout during which the stadium PA guy pipes in some Lady Gaga or Neil Diamond. A TV timeout during which the entire nation is subjected to an awful ad about misspelled beer. A TV timeout during which the players and refs and coaches just stand around, doing nothing, for no good reason at all. And all at once, your moment is lost. You are no longer at a college football game. You are just a lemming, in a sea of lemmings, listening to Neil Diamond.

We know why this is necessary, of course. Again, it’s the money.

And you know what? I could almost live with that. I really could. But then there’s this: For all of the money being made by college football of late, and for all of the money being poured back into college football programs of late—for coaches’ salaries, for recruiting budgets, for players’ lounges, for ghastly “alternative uniforms”—a startlingly small amount of money seems to be spent on the fans, the folks who, let’s face it, make all of this stuff possible in the first place.

Which is why, if you are a season ticket holder at Penn State today, your “seats” may not actually be seats at all, but may indeed rather be nothing more than a series of numbers on a cold metal bleacher bench.

Yes, that’s right, folks. Twenty-one years after my father and I sat on cramped and ridiculously uncomfortable wooden bleachers at historic Notre Dame stadium, college football stadium seating technology has apparently evolved only to the point where too-small, too-uncomfortable wooden bleachers have been replaced by too-small, too uncomfortable metal bleachers.

Why the lack of innovation? Why the too-small, too-uncomfortable metal bleachers?

Well, simple: they are the cheapest option available. And while the powers-that-be at your college football program of choice would of course never even consider paying their hard-earned money for such awful “seats,” they know that you, or somebody like you, probably will.

They also know that you, or somebody like you, will keep paying $40 to park your car.

That you, or somebody like you, will keep paying through the nose for concessions, and for paraphernalia, and for hotel rooms, and for gas.

Or, at the very least, they know that you, or somebody like you, has kept on paying ... so far.

***

Three weeks ago I took my son, Young Jack, to the Penn State-Iowa game.

It was glorious. Absolutely glorious.

We walked the charming streets of State College. We tailgated in the shadow of Mount Nittany. We saw the Nittany Lions win, we had a fine post-game meal, we bought a bunch of Penn State gear. We made a bunch of new memories. And I wouldn’t change that weekend for all the world.

But you know what? I won’t be going to back to another game at Penn State this year. That’s not because I don’t want to go back to another game at Penn State this year. But rather it’s because I can’t justify the expense of going to another Penn State game this year.

You see, when all was said and done—by the time we paid for our hotel ($327 per night), and our tickets ($55 each) and our parking ($40) and our meals ($250) and our gas ($100) and our gear ($75)—we spent a whole lot of money in those 48 hours.

I don’t mind spending this kind of money once a year, or perhaps even twice a year. But eight times a year? An entire season? I mean, it wouldn’t be impossible. But it certainly wouldn’t be advisable. In fact, some might say it would be insane.

And yet, for decades and decades now, people have been making that weekly trip to Penn State, or that weekly trip to Athens, or that weekly trip to Ann Arbor, or that weekly trip to Austin. For decades and decades now, people have been buying those season tickets. For decades and decades now, people have spent the money and have spent the time to support their program of choice, to support college football, to build this game into the wonderful slice of Americana that it’s become.

They have done this, I think, not just because they love supporting their team of choice, and not just because they love football, but rather because they believe in college football. These loyalists believe that supporting their alma mater is a good thing to do. They believe that supporting college football is a good thing to do. They believe, I guess, that all of the time and the money and, yes, even the backaches from those awful, cheap, cold metal bleacher benches, is worth it.

But now that the college game feels so money-grabby, now that the professionalization has set in, now that we’re allowing the game to be fundamentally altered in the name of mighty television, now that Saturdays are starting to be structured an awful lot like Sundays, well, I’m not sure enough people are going believe that anymore—or, at least, I’m not sure enough people are going believe that to fill up Beaver Stadium, or Michigan Stadium, or Sanford Stadium, or any stadium not currently located in Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge.

Which is to say, I'm not sure those empty seats we're seeing on television are ever going to go away.

Look, being a college football fan means being truly committed. It means being truly loyal. It means writing checks. It means making the effort to get to the game, no matter how far way the game may be. I means time. It means money.

For a great many years now, a great many people have been willing to do their part, have been willing to shell out the money and spend the time and do what needs to be done to support their team and support their sport.

That commitment, and that loyalty, is a wonderful thing. A wonderful thing indeed.

But it should not be taken for granted.

Because nothing lasts forever.

Miscellany: Notes from the college football fringes

♦ We here at TCFA used to like Brian Kelly. Now we don’t. Here’s why: 1. He says he wants Notre Dame to install a JumboTron at Notre Dame Stadium. 2. He says he wants Notre Dame to install FieldTurf at Notre Dame Stadium. Said Kelly: "I think I have sprinkled [the idea of FieldTurf] into the conversations. I don't think it's a mystery that we would like that. But it's not going to be my call. They know how I feel. I don't want to beat a dead horse, either, but it’s pretty clear we want to continue to create a great atmosphere there." I would love for somebody to explain to me how FieldTurf would add to the atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium.

♦ Another note on Brian Kelly’s Evil Plans: Installing FieldTurf at Notre Dame Stadium is the college football equivalent of installing drop ceilings at the Sistine Chapel.

♦ Another note on Brian Kelly’s Evil Plan: You know what you help improve the atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium? Not losing to South Florida or getting blown out by USC.

♦ Far be it for I, an unabashed Penn State Nittany Lion supporter, to cast dispersions upon the fans of Some Lesser Program. But I shall do exactly that now. Here goes: In the wake of Wisconsin’s stunning last-second loss to Michigan State last week, there came from The State of Ohio and sudden and completely unwarranted wave of … confidence. Yes, confidence. Because, you see, even though the Ohio State Buckeyes are currently 4-3 behind the leadership of Pretend Head Coach Luke Fickell, and even though the Buckeyes are completely and utterly incapable of moving the ball, Buckeye fans are now being told by Pravda (aka, every newspaper in the state) that all is well, and that the Buckeyes are still on track to win (or share) yet another Big Ten title. Wrote Cleveland Plain Dealer Buckeye reporter/shill Doug Lesmerises: “If you think Ohio State can take down Wisconsin in primetime in Ohio Stadium—though an angry and aware Wisconsin may not be the best thing for Ohio State—then go ahead and ponder the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes have already proven they can hang with Michigan State and Nebraska, the most likely Big Ten title game teams from the Legends Division.” Yes, it’s come to this. Ohio State fans/reporters bragging about “hanging with” (i.e., losing to) Nebraska and Michigan State.

♦ Joe Paterno was asked this week whether he had made a decision regarding his starting quarterback. He told the media that, yes, he had made a decision. That decision was this: Joe Paterno said Joe Paterno will start at quarterback this week. It was a humorous moment. Almost as humorous as the idea that Young Robert Bolden might actually start another game this season. Make the decision already, Joe. Matt McGloin deserves that much. The team deserves it, too.

♦ So it seems as though West Virginia to the Big 12 is not quite a done deal. And it seems as though the Big East + Conference USA + Mountain West Conference superconference is not quite a done deal. Both of these allegedly done deals ran aground on the very same day—Wednesday. My question is this: What happened behind the scenes on Wednesday to make both of these allegedly done deals run aground? I mean, something had to happen on Wednesday to make both of these allegedly done deals run aground. Right? Right? [Looking at you, Notre Dame.]

♦ Looking for this week’s picks, in which we welcome back longtime TCFA reader Michigan Bob Seif? Well, click here.

♦ Looking for the latest TCFA Podcast, in which Tim and Mike chat about everything from Penn State and Clemson to Grantland Rice and the Old Oaken Bucket? Well, click here.

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