How Big Ten's Scheduling Initiative Can Help Improve Attendance Numbers

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How Big Ten's Scheduling Initiative Can Help Improve Attendance Numbers
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Welcome to the start of the doldrums of the offseason, where the biggest topic of discussion and rancor is the declining attendance figures of student sections. On Monday, ESPN.com ran a series of stories focusing on the declining attendance of students around the college football world. 

The Big Ten doesn't exactly have an attendance problem, ranking second in college football while setting an all-time conference attendance record by averaging 70,451 fans a game.

It's a small increase of just under 400 fans per game from 2012, yet student attendance is somehow a major problem for the Big Ten?  

Michigan is a great example of why there is at least a little bit of concern growing over student attendance. According to ESPN.com's Darren Rovell, Michigan's student ticket sales declined 10 percent, and 26 percent of the students who bought tickets didn't show up. 

That was up by one percent from the year before and five percent over 2011, according to Rovell's article. 

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Yet, the conference and the athletic directors around it acknowledge that things are changing, especially for their core demographic—the student section.  

"There's so many options for our young people," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said, via ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg. "The demographic is changing; their interests are changing. We have to respond."

Most of the discussion around the topic of attracting students surrounds how to make the games more interactive.

You know, getting more hashtag friendly, getting better Wi-Fi access and cell service—any way to possibly make the game less important and the hanging out with the virtual world more important. 

Call me old-fashioned, crazy or a fuddy duddy, but the reality is if the college football world wants to see attendance go up at their games, they need to make the actual game matter more. 

I'm not the only one that sees it that way, either, as a Michigan student shared his answers to Michigan's season-ending survey to the student ticket holders, via Rovell's article: 

Adam Stillman, a senior at Michigan who attended all but one of the team's home games this year, shared his answers with ESPN.com. How he prioritized his answers might scare administrators, many of whom have looked to Wi-Fi connectivity as the answer to attracting younger fans. Stillman ranked sitting with friends, sitting close to the field, the outcome of the game, tailgating, the student section atmosphere, food specials and entertainment before the importance of Wi-Fi.

If the conference was just concentrating on getting the Internet up and running at higher levels in-stadium, a response like Stillman's would be worrisome.

However, the Big Ten sees interactivity as just one part of the overall picture to solving this issue. In fact, the conference may have exactly the right formula to remedy the situation. 

That's because, while they acknowledge the need for more in-game interactivity, the Big Ten also realizes the most important part to reversing the trend is something so simple—the games themselves. 

Apparently, it's a novel concept, but the Big Ten realizes the value of making sure the product on the field is what will matter most at the end of the day. 

Starting with the 2016 season, the Big Ten is adding an additional Big Ten contest and eliminating the playing of games against FCS opponents all together. 

In the coming years, teams from the Big Ten will see home games against the likes of Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Arkansas, UCLA and Oregon, just to name a few. 

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

That doesn't include major games played at neutral sites like a series of two games between LSU vs. Wisconsin, Maryland vs. Texas, Michigan vs. Florida or Wisconsin vs. Alabama. 

When you are competing with a tailgating experience that can connect people with their favorite activities like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, along with the interactivity of watching the game at home, you have to offer something that will entice people into the stadiums.  

The other part of the issue in attracting the younger demographic is something no one, even the Big Ten, seems to want to talk about. 

It's the unpleasant fact that the very people they depend on to show up—students—are facing higher levels of unemployment, and thus less disposable income than they have in decades past. 

For those who do have money, the choice is often between paying for food, TV, phone or game tickets. Those who do pay for said tickets need something more to attract them these days, and that's where some of the proposals being put forth help for sure. 

Texas player Quandre Diggs even took to Twitter to offer up solutions for a struggling demographic. While suggestions like free tickets or more Wi-Fi access are great, they are temporary solutions. 

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Nothing is a substitute for making a game a must-see event. Adding games that matter on the national level will make it more enticing to those with less disposable income than they've previously had as a group. 

That's where the Big Ten is going to have an advantage, and perhaps at just the right time.

Youth unemployment levels, especially those between 20-24, are beginning to decline. Should that trend continue over the next few years, it means more students with more money as well. 

It just won't be happening overnight, just like the issue at hand didn't begin overnight, either. It took years of neglecting the wants of fans in the stands to get them to stop showing up, and it will take years for this trend to reverse itself, too. 

While other leagues struggle to figure out gimmicks to entice people to the stadium experience, the Big Ten has figured out that making the game itself the centerpiece is the key ingredient to getting the people back in the stands. 

 

*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for Big Ten football. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.  

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