"This device," sneered Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald as he held aloft a smartphone at Big Ten Media Days, "will kill us all. Mark my words."
Okay, he didn't say that. From the Chicago Tribune, here's what he did say.
"The way a lot of younger people and fans intake is all through technology. You watch a concert and everybody is holding their phone up. LISTEN. WATCH. TAKE IT IN. Create a memory. They don’t go back and watch the videos. They just want to post it on their social media, which is pathetic because it creates a society of ‘Look at me! Isn’t my life great?’ Even though when they go home, they’re like, ‘I hate myself, I hate my life. Everything’s wrong.'"
Yeah! Freakin' kids! Good thing Ohio State would never kowtow to the baser desires of young adults, what with their Instagrams and Snapchats and bleep boop blorp bwoooOH DAMMIT!
So there it is. Might as well hook us all up to the embryonic pods filled with amniotic fluid as images of an artificial universe are wired into our brains. The robots rule now, and there's no going back.
We had a good run for a while. Back when sports used to be pure. Instead of being distracted at games by phones, fans were only distracted by food and advertisements and music and portable radio and jumbotrons and constantly updating scores and stats and little televisions that showed replays in concourses and above where you sit in B Deck and the general skittish gravity generated by being nuts to butts with approximately one hundred thousand loud, cranky, and often smelly human beings.
But at least there was no WiFi! Oh sweet merciful baby Brutus, when will some brave Luddite free us from this cage of technology??
Fitz, who at 44 years of age is about one and a half generations too young to be complaining about phones, made his comment in the context of declining football attendance. Fitzgerald conveniently ignored that he and his staff probably have sent several thousand texts to prospective players in the past year to make the point that Kids These Days would rather watch football filtered through a screen, unlike their parents who also did that but somehow get to be smug about it.
(An aside: what is worse, an ostensibly excited teen occasionally looking at his or her phone during a game, or the bored donor who shows up with six clients in A Deck and leaves in the second quarter?)
Anyway, the unstated complaint here is of course that previous generations would've killed to see a game in person; how dare we, as a society, take the experience of live college football for granted?
From a certain perspective I understand this point. If you, an Ohio State fan, don't have the financial or geographic means to see the Buckeyes take the field and never have, it's understandable that you might be irritated at someone who has the chance to go but doesn't. The poor dude living in Nome who picked the Buckeyes as His Team in the 90's because of Eddie George deserves a shot to go to a game, and if given the chance a lack of amenities in Ohio Stadium isn't going to keep him away. He'll go for the love of Ohio State and college football.
Which is great. It's also not really relevant.
Attendance in college football is down. That is a fact. Last week I wrote about how universities and students are subsidizing financially failing athletic departments, many of whom operate extremely expensive football programs for mostly prestige reasons. One of the potential arguments that I left out of my treatise were the raw numbers that a lot of these programs are looking at. They are grim.
In 2017, for example, the FBS Charlotte 49ers averaged less than 12,000 people in attendance per home game (which was the figure reported by the school itself, so, you know... probably not actually that). Justin Fields flicking boogers at Chris Olave every Saturday for an hour would draw at least twice that, with the additional benefit that students wouldn't have to subsidize over half of the money generated from doing so, as Charlotte students did in 2016-2017 by funding almost 21 million of the athletic department's 37 million in revenue.
Ohio State, who has an athletic department that doesn't take funds from either students or the school, averaged almost five thousand fewer attendees per game in 2018 than they did in 2017. As much as I would like to take everyone near and far who can't get into the game and plop them on the 50 yard line, that's not really too likely to happen or to solve the long term issue of attendance.
So now Ohio State, and the rest of college football, has two options. The first option is to downsize. This isn't going to be taken seriously anytime soon. It cost 12 bucks to go see Keith Byars truck dudes all afternoon in 1982, the equivalent of just over 31 dollars today. That'll get you about 18 solid minutes of football action in an isolated corner of C Deck in 2019, and when revenues (and expenditures) are eclipsing 200 million dollars, dialing prices back isn't going to happen. Another way to downsize would be to keep prices the same, but take out bench seating and decrease capacity. You'd create more scarcity and ensure sellouts, but of course our buddy from Nome is even more screwed.
Option one is rooted in the idea that the product of college football is great as-is, and the only real problem here is supply and demand. The second option rejects that, throws its hands in the air, and says "all right, fine, have your damn WiFi." It also acknowledges that the gameday experience alone is no longer enough of a draw by itself to get people to games. That means adding quality of life amenities, building better stadium facilities, and basically concentrating on adding things that Pat Fitzgerald and company view as an overall distraction to the game.
Simply put: if college football wants to solve (or at least help) its attendance problem, it can either continue as it has been and try to reign in ticket prices, or it can keep charging an arm and a leg but provide a viewing experience commensurate with what people are being expected to pay.
Last year, I had the best seats I will ever get for a Buckeye football game, sitting just a few rows up and smack dab in the center of the field. Despite the heat (extremely oppressive) and the opponent (Oregon State, total garbage), it was still Ohio State football and still extremely cool and good. I took pictures of the field, posed with my wife, and enjoyed myself. This was easy to do, because the tickets were free as my wife had scored them at work.
But I later thought, sitting next to a Port-a-Potty in mostly barren concourse while I waited for a rain delay to be over, how would I feel about the experience if I had paid hundreds of dollars for it? And isn't it weird that I could only share it with people via social media or texting when football wasn't in action?
Well hey: one problem solved! Let's see if Ohio State and company try and tackle the others.