Published Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 10:43 am
College Athletics
Barfknecht: Stronger links with fans A.D.s' hot button issue

Athletic directors in power conferences appear to have it pretty good these days.

Previously unimaginable TV contracts are filling their department's bank accounts. Equipment and apparel companies offer more and more goodies to keep or gain business. And donors at many schools line up to lease suites.

Storm clouds in athletics never fully dissipate, however, which is why A.D.s see a new worry on the horizon.

Call it “the in-game fan experience,” specifically in the revenue sports of football and men's basketball.

“Nobody who sits in our stands should be taken for granted,” Michigan State A.D. Mark Hollis said. “We, as an industry, have done that a little bit in lieu of the rising TV revenues. We've put our focus on TV.

“We need to get back to re-energizing the value of the men and women sitting in the stands cheering on their teams.”

But won't the fans always show up? The great unknown is whether a tipping point is near.

Think about watching a game at home on a big screen TV with HD picture, a pause button, a clean bathroom 20 steps away and no one with their knees in your back. Think about $100 prices for single football games at aging venues. Think about the technology that distracts people during a two-hour basketball game or three-hour football game.

“All of that is a concern,” Oregon State A.D. Bob De Carolis said. “Our worry isn't that nobody is going to show up.

“But we've got to make sure the product is good, it's priced right and you get value for the money you are paying to come to the venue — whether it's inside access or service with a smile. All of that adds up.”

If any league might seem cushioned from the issue, the Southeastern Conference would come to mind after claiming seven straight national football championships.

Yet in the past four seasons, overall league attendance has crept down slightly.

That's one reason the SEC has created the “Working Group on Fan Experience.”

One of that group's main efforts will be to process in-depth research so schools can stop “chasing ghosts,” said chairman Scott Stricklin, Mississippi State A.D.

“There's a reason why Fortune 500 companies pour a lot of money into research,” he said. “Until you do it, you are guessing.

“There is so much anecdotal stuff out there about what possible issues might be. It's hard to know which ones are real and which are imaginary. Is it ticket prices? Parking? TV start times? The way the team is playing? Scheduling?”

The answer, Stricklin suspects, is a little bit of everything.

“But we want to drill down and get a true idea of key issues,” he said, “so we can attack them.”

At Michigan State last fall, Hollis did some immediate boots-on-the-ground research after seeing row after empty row in the student section during a football game against Iowa.

“I walked the streets talking to kids about why they didn't go,” Hollis said. “They said, 'We couldn't text because it was raining. They couldn't have their phones out.' That hit me pretty hard.”

The in-game experience for students is critical because that's the next generation of season-ticket buyers.

“If they aren't coming as students, are they going to come as young professionals?” Hollis asked. “We need to make sure we deliver in our venues what's delivered on TV, and then some.”

That's why New York's Madison Square Garden, in its $1 billion renovation, is looking at handheld-device docking stations at each seat. That's why Michigan State is looking at a $2 million Wi-Fi system in its football stadium, and Nebraska also is researching it. That's why Oregon State is looking at upgrading scoreboards and the speed of information passed along on them.

Stricklin said nearly every business conversation he has with a fellow athletic director comes around to “connectivity.”

“For safety reasons, you want people to be able to send and receive text messages and phone calls,” he said. “But you don't want people looking down at their phones the whole time and not be engaged.”

Another issue involves paying for upgraded technology.

“Should it come from the school,” Stricklin asked, “or should it come from the private sector?”

Ah, yes, money — the bottom line of all. That, too, is something athletic directors never lose sight of.

“We're all going to donor-based seating,” Hollis said. “As you raise that, you raise expectations of ownership vs. enjoyment. We have to be cognizant of what we're charging and what we're returning.

“But if you can deliver an amazing Saturday, I still think it's an extremely good value.”

We'll know for sure over the next few years by the number of rumps in the seats.

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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