For a brief period a few years ago, there was some weirdo in the student section who would head up to the concessions at halftime, drop fifty bucks on hot dogs, return to his seat, wave his arms about, and chuck foil-clad meat missiles at the most enthusiastic folks around him. He was a hero. A couple games into this era, the students started a rhythmic chant for him.
"HOT. DOG. GUY."
"HOT. DOG. GUY."
This was fun! It was ours.
Michigan kicked him out of three consecutive games, until he stopped. Or stopped coming.
It's time for another internet-wide fret about the kids and how they don't like the live football anymore, this one spawned by a Darren Rovell article. (I know, I know. This article is good and does not expose you to Rovell's personality.) In said article, there's the usual platter of disturbing stats…
Arizona sold 10,376 student season tickets this year. But 47.6 percent of those students, for an average game, didn't even show up.
This year, the University of Michigan drew the most fans of any school for the 16th year in a row. But 26 percent of students who paid for their tickets didn't show up at an average home game this season. That's an increase from 25 percent last year and 21 percent in 2011.
"We have to solve this because we are talking about the season ticket-holders of tomorrow," said Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. "But interests and attitudes are changing so rapidly it's not easy to quickly identify what we need to do."
…and the hope that having wifi will fix everything, which it won't. (But don't let that stop you.)
While this is a nationwide problem, Rovell's article touches on Michigan specifically in a couple spots. He talks to a reasonable-sounding Michigan senior:
"I've kind of accepted that I'm not getting reception in and around Michigan Stadium," [Adam] Stillman said. "The problem is in all the other areas. There's nothing to do while I'm waiting on line for an hour to get into the stadium, and there's little added value from being in the stands watching the game."
I was pro-general admission when it was announced, but if its goal was to get more students to the game on time, it is a failed policy. The slight increase in no-shows is worse than it looks—possibly much worse. 2012's home schedule had one attraction, Michigan State. The other games were against Air Force, UMass, Illinois, Northwestern, and a 4-8 Iowa. 2013 had a night game against Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State. The only games after the season took a turn for the grim in East Lansing were those Nebraska and OSU games. What is the no-show rate going to be next year? I'd be shocked if Michigan doesn't crack 30%.
Is there anything that can be done about this? I mean, you're just not going to reach the people I had to deal about ten years ago who would wander in during the second quarter smelling like an overturned truck of Jack Daniels. Those folks seem to be proliferating, and the only thing you can do is figure out ways to punish them and drive them away.
The university's attempts to rein in bad actors with first the validation program and then general admission have made it difficult to flip student tickets and then made them unattractive to non-students. Tickets remain cheap enough that a large chunk of the students don't care about wasting that money. The result is large pockets of empty seats.
It's time to end the war on crappy student fans
Yes, some of these 18-year-olds are intolerable. But fighting them doesn't do anything for you. The main thing it does is make things worse for the 75% who do show up. Michigan has continually raised the bar on the students at the same time their interest level is dropping. The results are, in retrospect, predictable.
The alternative is to offer carrots instead of sticks. Michigan tried that with the "HAIL" program, which was a failure in year one, totally revamped in year two, and is probably two or three years away from being quietly assassinated in an alley. This is because it offers you a t-shirt; it was always an attempt to give the appearance of a carrot without spending any money.
The right move is to be good to your fans. Michigan has gotten continually worse. Blasting an ad—and yes, it is an ad—for renting out the stadium or exhorting people to follow you on twitter is unpleasant. Having to scream at the person next to you to be heard is the kind of thing that makes you walk out of a restaurant. Michigan does that at every available opportunity. Ever-increasing prices, hour-long waits to get into the stadium, ushers who kick you out for throwing marshmallows… all of these things are a drag on your future revenue base.
It's time to be less focused on the next quarter's budget and more focused on building an environment that will induct the next generation into your cult.
Instead, the athletic department is more concerned with policing behavior that they cannot change. The current generation of suits spent their days at Michigan buying tickets for their kegs and throwing toilet paper willy-nilly. These days, a weirdo who buys hot dogs at halftime and tosses them around the section gets kicked out.
Football is supposed to be fun, and it's not really that much fun these days. The athletic department took the initiative to stomp on every student tradition they found 1% threatening. Now the students have taken the initiative away from the athletic department by not caring anymore. They win.
I'm not sure trying to make Michigan athletics the most awesome place in the country to see a game is going to work, but it's clear that something has to change if this slide is going to be arrested. Being mean didn't work. Try being nice. Meaningfully.