Bryant-Denny and beyond: How college football powerhouses are taking on the future of attendance
By: Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Just after 8 a.m. the day before an Alabama home game, athletic director Greg Byrne opened the door and entered the conference room adjacent to his office. He sat down at a table alongside various athletic department leaders, Alabama’s chief financial officer, a representative from an architecture firm and the current student body president.
The people in the room had one common goal, one answer they sought. They were the ones tasked with solving an alarming problem in college football: declining attendance. And even though they were sitting within the walls of the most successful program of the decade, led by one of the sport’s all-time great coaches in Nick Saban, the issue felt no less pressing.
Alabama is in the early stages of a three-phase renovation, one that will allow Bryant-Denny Stadium to retain its history and its charm while also modernizing what needs to be modernized in order to give fans the best possible experience. Phase one starts at the conclusion of the 2019 season; the third and final phase should finish in 2023 or 2024. Mockups and renderings are shown on the projector.
Those who have studied attendance at college football games closely in recent years point to several reasons for the general decline. Some factors differ from school to school, but others seem fairly universal: the total cost, uncertainty over kickoff times, bleacher seats that are too uncomfortable, concession areas that are too claustrophobic, the lack of handrails that make it easier to get around. Some fans prefer to watch at home, so they can watch more games. The quality of opponent matters, too.
Meanwhile, college football attendance has dipped to its lowest mark in 22 years. In 2018, the SEC — whose slogan “It Just Means More” pairs well with the normally safe assumption that fan fervor in the region is unmatched — posted its lowest average attendance since 2004, a drop of 1.4 percent from the previous season.
Everyone involved in college athletics understands these numbers and the challenges that come with them. They know, for example, that they can no longer take for granted that students will come to and sit through every home game. That is worrisome because they know those students turn into young alumni who might not become season-ticket holders who come back for games each fall.
“If we keep saying, ‘Well, let’s just keep doing the same thing we’ve always done because we’re Alabama,’ then that probably isn’t a reality that’s going to be successful,” Byrne said to the room. “So, we have to be realistic that things change, things evolve. All you have to do is look at Coach Saban. Look at how he’s evolved offensively. He’s adapted as a coach in many other aspects, too. How do we not look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, ‘How do we need to adapt to put our university, our athletic department and our football program in a better position?’
“What do people think of when they think of Alabama? Probably the first thing they think of is Alabama football. We should be proud of that. As one of our state’s shining stars, we need to make sure we do everything we can to put it in the best possible position for the long haul.”
That is precisely what Byrne and his colleagues were trying to do in that meeting and still try to do today: Keep people coming to games. Oklahoma and Notre Dame, among others, have recently gone through similar processes with an eye toward honoring the history and tradition of their existing stadiums.
They’re all trying to improve the game day experience, from start to finish. That, they feel, is the only way to ensure people will pay to come to games five years from now, 10 years from now with their kids and 50 years from now with their grandkids.
“What the business model was for years was to get as many people in the stadium as possible,” said Kenny Mossman, senior associate athletic director of external operations at Oklahoma. “I think the philosophy has now shifted to making sure that this seat can deliver the revenue that we need to sustain our department.”
As Byrne traveled throughout the state during his first few months on the job in early 2017, fans kept coming up to him to ask the same question: Has anything surprised you about Alabama so far?
His answer varied. He’d always say how much he loved Bryant-Denny Stadium and its tradition — when the stadium was full. “It’s really special,” he’d say. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
Then he would say something not everyone wanted to hear.
“A lot of our fans have a very challenging experience at Bryant-Denny Stadium,” he would tell them.
“We’re all, myself included, seeing the world out of our goggles,” Byrne said many months later. “I think the reality is there’s a lot of different experiences that take place on a Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“All you have to do is walk around, literally, on a game day and you’ll see you have people for whom it’s a physical challenge for them to do this and they will walk two miles to come be inside of Bryant-Denny Stadium. We can’t take that for granted.”
But he knew he could make experiences better for those fans. And students. And, yes, the top-tier donors who expect an entirely different type of Saturday experience. (The needs of those donors and their suites tend to be addressed in the first phase of any renovation project in order to help fund the rest of it.)
Alabama’s athletic leadership decided to send out a survey to 250,000 fans: season-ticket holders, single-game buyers, students, anyone and everyone who might have constructive feedback. As expected, answers varied. Some said parking was the most important part of their game day experience. Others said the amenities and the food offerings. A few listed Wi-Fi.
Byrne took this to the Birmingham-based architecture firm Davis Architects, which had already started working on a feasibility study, and they went to work. The first phase, recently approved by the board of trustees with a $92.5 million price tag, includes a tunnel for the football team to enter the stadium at the end of the Walk of Champions, updated locker rooms, new videoboards, upgraded premium suites and a new student plaza. Later phases include renovations to the concessions areas, which will be reconfigured to a market-style setup to decrease crowds and increase circulation.
Alabama also hopes to use the tunnel and other areas throughout the stadium to detail the history of the program for tourists and visitors year-round. But the main priorities are those Saturdays in the fall and the people who spend them with the Crimson Tide. The stadium’s capacity, which is currently listed as 101,281, will still remain more than 100,000. The dip may not seem dramatic, but it highlights a trend across almost all college football stadiums renovated in the past decade or so: downsizing.
“Over the past 10 or 12 years the trend in college football facilities, specifically, was quantity,” said Stephanie Pope, vice president, director of interior design at Davis. “We want more people in the stadium, we want the biggest stadium out there. Over the past three to four years, it’s shifting from quantity to quality. That is what the University of Alabama is proposing to do.”
“The most important thing in the process is at the front end, asking yourself what are you trying to do,” Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said. “Is it about revenue? Is it about fan experience? Is it about creating a competitive edge, home-field advantage?”
Swarbrick said that the main priority for Notre Dame was to renovate the stadium in a way that allowed it to be used more often throughout the year, like for actual classes. But the Irish also realized early on that they could help their football team, too. How could it become a better competitive venue? Notre Dame ended up cutting out a second tunnel for the visiting team, so that only Notre Dame would emerge from the main tunnel. The band was moved up to the stands; temporary seating was moved off the field so it would be cleaner and safer. The locker room was renovated. Concourses were redesigned to include a sound system and video boards. Suites for the largest donors became even swankier than before.
Notre Dame, like others, widened its bleacher seats. The Irish also installed Wi-Fi in the pipes of the aisle railings. Swarbrick pointed out that while enhancing Wi-Fi capacity can only help, better Wi-Fi does not appear very high among fans’ priorities.
Oklahoma learned that, too, when it surveyed its fans in advance of its renovations.
“When we poll our season-ticket holders, Wi-Fi always shows up — but it’s never dominant, which has always surprised us,” said Mossman. “It did not show itself as the driver that we anticipated it might be. It still boils down to the experience of the game day itself. …
“We start focusing on what the game looks like from the time it begins to the time it ends. Things like static presentations on the field‚ we need to reduce those and fill those (breaks) with more entertainment. There was a day and time when we were trying very hard to drive people’s attention down to the field for the entire duration of the game. Now, we’re actually going to attempt to divert their eyes over to those video boards that we have. To create an entirely different experience, we’re going to try to make most of our ads with visuals overlayed with music, so that there may not have to be as much narration.”
To give fans the best possible game day experience, Alabama must top the alternatives of watching the game at home or at a bar with friends. That starts off the field.
Oklahoma does Fan Fests for each home game outside the stadium, as does Texas. Those normally include live music, food trucks, various entertainers and games like corn hole. Florida has also experimented with food trucks and a festival-like atmosphere around its stadium.
Some schools have reconfigured parking lots to make it easier to get in and out, or adopted mobile ticketing to save fans one small headache. Other schools have used student volunteers to personalize special days. At Oklahoma, a group of students will meet people at the gate with stickers for families celebrating a birthday or a first visit. It’s all part of creating a memory, Mossman said.
Oklahoma, like many of its peers, has also tried to turn reasons for staying at home into reasons for coming to the game. For example, if fans want to watch games other than Oklahoma’s, there are TVs in suites that they can control.
“Let’s just accommodate it,” Mossman said. “That’s become our philosophy across the board. If people are telling us with their experiences that they’re having away from the stadium that are better or akin to what they have in the stadium, then rather than argue with them about that, why don’t we just try to embrace that and make what we have include some of those elements?”
Some schools have recently changed their in-stadium alcohol policies, allowing fans outside of suite areas to purchase beer and wine, with alcohol monitors present throughout the stadium.
“People seem appreciative of the fact that we trust them to be adults, and very frankly, the number of alcohol-related incidents has gone down,” Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said.
After years of internal debate, the SEC recently passed a conference-wide rule that allows its members to sell alcohol at games if they want. It’s all about accommodating fans and taking away their reasons to stay home.
“I went to a Disney seminar one time and they said, ‘What do you think is the goal that we aspire for Disney?’” Mossman said. “You sit there and scratch your head and you think, ‘To make people happy?’ They told us no — it was to get you to come back to your next visit. That’s really what we have to be motivated by as well. What can we do when they’re here that makes it so much fun that they have to come back? That’s really what’s driving a lot of us.”
It’s one thing to build the seats and an entirely different thing to fill them. This is part of the reason student attendance is of the utmost importance. If you can’t capture the interest of your current students, how can you expect them to engage as alumni? Thinking about that question keeps athletic directors up at night. Coaches, too.
When Nick Saban talks, all of college football listens. So when he teed off on his own students last October, many ears perked up. If the defending national champions were having issues getting students to games, then what hope was there for everyone else?
“I can honestly say I was a little disappointed there weren’t more students at the last game,” Saban said in October, the week after a 56-14 win over Louisiana that kicked off at 11 a.m. local time. “I think we’re trying to address that. I don’t think they’re entitled to anything, either. Me personally, I think it ought to be first-come, first-serve. If they don’t want to come to the game, they don’t have to come. But I’m sure there’s enough people around here that would like to go to the games and we’d like for them to come, too, because they support the players.”
At the next home game against Missouri — in part because of the return of the traditional playing of the song “Dixieland Delight” — the students showed up and stayed into the fourth quarter. Saban made sure to thank them afterward.
Students, more than anyone else, provide and define the in-game atmosphere, and the student experience is a focal point of the first phase of Alabama’s renovation. Initially, Byrne and the architecture firm envisioned a student terrace behind the south end zone, a picnic-like space for students to socialize while watching the game. That plan was scrapped in June and replaced by a 10,000-square foot student plaza below the seats in the southeast corner of the stadium. That space will include new concessions, restrooms, fans, TVs, charging stations and water stations.
Alabama also plans to unveil a new incentive-based program for students who stick around through the fourth quarter. They’ll be able to get credit for “checking in” on a geo-location app that will confirm that they’re still in the stadium at that time. Those bonus points, combined with credit hours, will then determine that student’s standing regarding future tickets.
“Somebody who’s a freshman might have a small number of credit hours, but if they stay for every single game, they could possibly go ahead of a sophomore for postseason tickets and tickets to next year,” said Price McGiffert, who served as Alabama’s student body president this past academic year. “Coach Saban doesn’t ask a lot from the students, but he wants his students to be there the whole game and cheer the whole game, and that’s not that much to ask for if you see what he’s done for this community and what he’s done for this university.”
“It’s safe to say that we recognize that our students are important,” said Finus Gaston, Alabama’s chief financial officer. “Those are our future season-ticket holders, and if we don’t capture them while they’re here, getting them back afterwards when they’re going on with their lives is going to be difficult.”
McGiffert, who graduated in the spring, has already purchased season tickets for the fall. Not every recent graduate has done the same, however, which is why Alabama has joined Notre Dame, Oklahoma and others in offering tiered ticket packages — mini-packs for segments of the home schedule instead of for every game, cheaper tickets in certain areas of the stadium and other ways of slicing up its home game inventory.
Tennessee is experimenting with what it calls the Vol Pass, a ticketing system that guarantees fans seats for a game but doesn’t lock them into a particular seat or section for the entire season. Tickets go through a mobile app, and fans log in at a certain time on Mondays to pick their seats for the coming Saturday. The Vol Pass for 2019, which includes all eight home games, costs $280. Other schools, like Ohio State and Cal, are debuting similar programs this fall.
“We’re trying to take away all of the barriers and obstacles of why people don’t go to games,” said Jimmy Delaney, Tennessee’s associate athletics director for fan experience and sales. “Ease of use and affordability were two of (younger alumni’s) main concerns.”
Tennessee tested out the Vol Pass during basketball season with the same seat-selection system that cost $99. Fans liked it; a number of basketball Vol Pass users have already purchased Vol Passes for football games, too. They just want to be in the building.
“We’ve got a 100,000-seat stadium,” Delaney said. “So we have to create opportunities to get folks in there.”
That line of thinking is relatively new in college sports. For decades, athletic departments essentially took for granted that fans would fill their stadium’s seats, no matter the quality of the product on the field, the time slot in which the game was being played or even the cost of the ticket. Athletic departments have long had people in ticketing and marketing roles, but they weren’t always doing the same kind of proactive work or aggressive outreach that their professional sports counterparts were forced to. And their staff size wasn’t what it needed to be.
“Even at a major Power Five school … what they tend to do is say, ‘Jeez, I’m just going to go hire the next hotshot coach and keep my fingers crossed that that’s going to get everybody excited, and they’re going to turn around and go buy season tickets,” said Steve DeLay, who along with his business partner Jon Spoelstra revolutionized how tickets are marketed and sold in the NBA. “It doesn’t work anymore. Nowadays it’s yes, the hot shot coach might help. But there’s a little bit of a ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ mentality. So you’ve got to do all of it. You’ve got to aggressively market. That’s email marketing and digital marketing retargeting. You’ve got to track it all to know, if I’m spending one dollar, am I getting five dollars back in revenue? Schools are slowly catching up to where the professional sports realm was 20 years ago.
“They’re realizing now that they need to hire and train salespeople. They need to actually create group ticket products and smaller ticket packages — five-game plans, seven-game plans, especially for basketball. And they’ve got to drive sellouts. … It’s like colleges have woken up and said, ‘Oh my gosh, ticket sales are the lifeblood of our athletics. We need to put time, energy and effort into it.’”
Sellouts are particularly important. As DeLay puts it, the best sporting event you have ever been to was probably a sellout. That’s probably why you enjoyed it so much: You wanted to be there, everybody wanted to be there, and the atmosphere was electric because of it. Maybe it even convinced you to come back for another game. Small ticket packages, DeLay said, should not just include the least appealing games on a team’s schedule. They should include the best games, the ones that should become sellouts. This is where creative marketing comes in.
DeLay estimates that about 50 colleges have purchased The Ultimate Toolkit, a five-part program he and Spoelstra developed that promises to dramatically increase ticket sales. DeLay has consulted directly with about a dozen of those schools, including UNLV.
One creative marketing scheme UNLV used last season was an Eat All You Can Plan, which was paired with a multi-game ticket package. Instead of trying to market tickets as discounted, UNLV simply sold full-price tickets with unlimited hot dogs, nachos, popcorn and soda. Fans felt it was a worthwhile value proposition: UNLV sold about 400 three-game packs for football and a similar amount of five-game basketball packs.
DeLay recommends targeting specific consumer groups — hardcore fans, social fans, etc. — and creating specific strategies for each. Email marketing and digital retargeting (with ads that show up after potential customers have visited your sales site) have made that process easier by providing organizations with a more accurate return on investment for each campaign. The effects of a billboard or an ad read on a radio show on revenue are not as easily measured.
To do all of that effectively, university athletic departments need to hire, train and expand their sales and marketing staffs to understand how to think creatively, market aggressively and track behavior closely. “Tickets don’t sell themselves unless you go to the Sweet 16 or something like that,” DeLay said. “If you’re going to sit back and rely on that, you’re living in a fantasyland.”
Schools often say they can’t use salespeople because they can’t pay them commission, but DeLay said there are ways to get approval to do so, much like coaches get bonuses tied to performance. (He’s worked with schools that have done this.) Alternatively, athletic departments could hire and train students to do the work without earning commission. (He’s also worked with schools that have done this.)
Marketing strategies and stadium amenities are just pieces of the response to declining college football attendance, but they’re significant pieces. And they can be improved even as game-related factors like quality of opponent or kickoff time fluctuate.
It all boils down to something much more complex than simply squeezing tens of thousands of people into concrete coliseums. It’s not simply about the capacity. It’s not simply about the cost. And it’s definitely not just about the access to Wi-Fi.
“I attended University of Alabama, and I have a good number of friends and colleagues who were with me in school, people who ask me why are we losing however many seats,” said Stephanie Pope, the Alabama architectural firm representative. “That’s still kind of a big deal, but obviously I have been explaining to them the difference between packing as many people in there as you can and having a quality experience.
“I think over time, and especially once people see what’s happening and see how it’s going to improve their experiences, it’s going to be a huge phenomenon.”