I talk a lot about "hating the 'Gate" during this week. On my Facebook page, I'm listing 27 reasons why I "hate the 'Gate", and it's a good-natured ribbing of Colgate from a guy who actually respects the Raiders the other 51 weeks out of the year. It's fun, it fires up the Lehigh and Colgate fans, and it gets folks to come out and see a really good football game where a pair of high-academic, solid football programs are facing off in spirited competition.
Or so I hope.
Attendance for non-Lafayette football events has been in serious decline over the past few years. Some of that is due to the fact that Lehigh hasn't been Patriot League champions since 2006 - and even that year, where Lafayette pounded Lehigh 49-27 and earned the autobid to the Patriot League playoffs instead, hardly felt like a championship - and it's clear that the bandwagon fans turn out for a winner in big games. But that folks are no longer showing up in droves for other games points to different issues in terms of attendance.
A larger part than you think is due to Lehigh's opponents. (more)
September 11th, 2010. The defending national champions come to Lehigh, something you think would not only attract hardcore Lehigh fans but other Patriot League fans, curious Lehigh Valley-area FCS fans who don't get to see a national champion come to town too often, and Villanova students, parents, and alumni, to see their team.
It felt like the perfect storm: Lafayette's game against Georgetown was to happen at night - meaning, potentially, some fans would travel to Lehigh to spy "behind enemy lines" - as were the Phillies. Even Penn State's game against Alabama was a night game, meaning the way was free and clear for a huge Lehigh Valley turnout. Add to that a picture-perfect early September afternoon, and it felt like a potentially explosive turnout.
Instead, the announced attendance was 8,168. Barely over half the capacity of the 16,000 of Murray Goodman stadium, and well below the 11,101 announced two years ago when Lehigh took on Villanova then.
First of all, the counted attendance at Lehigh events only include paid attendance. Students get in free with their student ID, and don't count in the attendance numbers. Anecdotal evidence (i.e., my own two eyes) showed that the students turned out pretty well for the game - say, 500 conservatively, 1,000 liberally - but poured out of the stadium at halftime after the Wildcats were beating up on the Mountain Hawks.
But a key missing ingredient were the visiting fans.
Villanova scheduled "Volunteer Day" on the exact same day as the Lehigh game, a big event on the Wildcat campus, which is only an hour away from Bethlehem. Students were, in essence, asked to either volunteer on campus with the majority of their classmates (and in some cases families), or instead bag on helping those in need and coming to see their national-champion football team.
As a result, Villanova's fan base was tiny, consisting of alumni and friends and family of the football team. That hurt attendance to a much larger extent than you may think.
If you look at the other home games this year, you see a similar trend.
Princeton (attendance: 6,344) has historically done a rotten job encouraging their students and alumni to travel to Murray Goodman - even if, like Villanova, they're only an hour away. Still, they were 4-6 last year and were breaking in a new head coach, so perhaps their lack of enthusiasm can be somewhat understood.
Fordham (attendance: 5,176) has generally traveled decently to Bethlehem, but essentially competing as an independent instead of as a full-fledged member of the Patriot League certainly held down attendance. A two-game losing streak by the Rams going into the game couldn't have helped, either - nor did the fact that Lehigh's pacing break meant many of the students and their families were at home, not on campus.
Bucknell (attendance: 7,571) have generally not traveled well to Bethlehem as their football program has, for the most part, struggled. Still, they were 1-0 in Patriot League play going into this weekend, despite their 1-5 record, and at least in theory were able to jumpstart a Patriot League title run should they have beaten Lehigh.
This weekend, too, promises to not deliver that many Colgate fans to Murray Goodman.
Already a challenge because of the distance from Hamilton, NY (a 5 hour drive), any extra incentive for Colgate students to make the trip was dashed by the University itself, who scheduled Family Weekend on the same weekend that the football team was travelling to Lehigh.
Again, students are being asked: spend time with their families on campus? Or schedule a 10 hour trip to Lehigh?
Scheduling family weekend on a football weekend used to be a no-brainer, but nowadays it seems like the fashion is to schedule it on a non-football weekend. Lehigh's is scheduled for the weekend of the Holy Cross game, for example.
But when I was an undergraduate, family weekends almost always coincided with home athletic events. Tailgating with friends' parents and attending family day football games were a staple of my experience at Lehigh. Even my grandfather, a former collegiate wrestler, came down on a football and wrestling weekend. We had a great time - it was a cherished family memory, and the only time he came to visit the Lehigh campus.
Stuff like this so clearly demonstrates that the calendars of the institution and the athletics teams could be much better coordinated to improve attendance. If Pacing Break were on the weekend of New Hampshire, say, who knows how many fans might have made the trek to Cowell, New Hampshire to see Lehigh play?
It makes you wonder if, especially in the Northeast, the institutions themselves are actively trying to wreck attendance to their sporting events. After all, football-wise, it ruins two weekends: the potential family weekend crowd that would normally turn out for a home game, and the road tripping crowd to the away game when family weekend occurs.
Folks will blame attendance woes on the region ("The Northeast doesn't care about football!"), the students ("They have so many more entertainment options!"), tailgating ("The fans just tailgate, they don't come in to watch the game!") and even the weather ("It's too cold/rainy/sunny/windy for folks to watch football!").
But something to think about as a crowd of less than 10,000 gets announced at Murray Goodman this weekend is that the institutions themselves do an awful lot to wreck attendance figures at their own events. Whether it's by design or by accident will be a matter up for debate, but when you hear the announced attendance this weekend, rest assured it will partially be thanks to Colgate's family weekend plans.
This weekend's game will be broadcast nationally on FCS College Sports (tape delayed), and broadcast locally on Service Electric 2 TV by the fine broadcast team of Mike Zambelli and former Lehigh LB Mike Yadush.
Time Warner Cable in upstate New York could have elected to carry the game in their area on their local station, but chose not to do so. That means the only way for Colgate fans (or interested Holy Cross fans) to watch the game will be to fire up their laptops and order the game online ($7 for video, $3 for audio from Matt Kerr, Kody Fedorcha and Matt Markus).
While I'm happy that Lehigh will get some money out of this arrangement, couldn't Time Warner have simply bought the rights so that Colgate students and alumni - stuck in Hamilton on Family Weekend - could watch the game on TV?
I understand that it is the cable company's call to broadcast the game, not Colgate's. But if Colgate really cared about their students having the ability to watch the game, couldn't someone at Colgate have said something to somebody?
And couldn't something be said to the folks at Fox College Sports, who will be broadcasting a Division II game between Indiana (PA) and Califronia (PA) instead? Before you write me and mention that "hey, it's the 'Coal Bowl'", know too that FCS will be broadcasting the game on both FCS East and FCS West - two different stations. Couldn't the biggest game in the Patriot League this week at least be broadcast live, nationally, somewhere? Especially when Fox College Sports is choosing to broadcast the same Division II game on two different networks?
It seems odd to me that, in this day and age, the only way to get video of the best Patriot League Game of the Week (if you don't live in the Lehigh Valley, that is) is to get out your computer, spend some money and stream the game online. In addition, I find it incredibly hard to believe there is no TV market for Colgate football up in Hamilton and that folks would not demand some sort of TV broadcast, whether on FCS College Sports or on the local station.
This week Craig Haley at The Sports Network penned an article that implied that the Patriot League and MEAC were auditioning for their playoff spots in the future. Considering this went against anything I had ever known about the FCS playoffs in seven years following the entire subdivision closely (and more than that, following Lehigh athletics), I asked around about his article to find out more about it.
"Every year is an audition for every conference," one NCAA official told me, saying that autobids to the FCS playoffs are awarded based the overall performance of their conference.
Most years, this hasn't been an issue since all the teams that requested autobids for the playoffs (and met the playoff criteria) got them. But since the Pioneer Football League has requested an autobid to the FCS playoffs, and in fact can qualify for the playoffs if they meet certain bridge criteria, the playing field is indeed quite different that how it used to be. The fact is: right now, there are currently ten autobids, and eleven conferences are asking for them. One conference will be left out.
Fortunately for the Patriot League, there doesn't seem to be any reason to panic.
Looking at the latest GPI rankings - the closest thing to an objective measure we have - the Patriot League sits with a comfortable five-point cushion over the Pioneer Football League in terms of rating, and is a virtual certainty to finish ahead of the PFL at the end of the year. (The Patriot League also happend to sit in front of the MEAC by a few percentage points as well.)
Curious is Mr. Haley's omission of the Big South and NEC in his article, who has consistently finished behind the Patriot League in terms of polls, conference rankings and even, in most years, in head-to-head matchups every year except this one. While the essence of his article is true - all eligible conferences that want an autobid, from the CAA down to the Pioneer, are constantly auditioning for an autobid - his implication that only the MEAC and Patriot League need worry is off base, especially since there is virtually no way that the Pioneer League, with six teams ranked below 100 in the 124-team GPI - can unseat the MEAC or Patriot League in terms of conference strength this year.
The Patriot League, with a win over the NEC or Big South in the FCS playoffs, could send a powerful message as well.
Finally, overheard on the comments on my blog but worthy of repeating:
Ed Kercher, center on the Lehigh teams of '66, '67 and '68, indicates that approximately 60 former Lehigh football players from the late 60s are gathering in Bethlehem this weekend for the Colgate-Lehigh game to host a reunion with former Coach Fred Dunlap who coached at Lehigh in the late 60s and then went returned to a distinguished head coaching career at his alma mater Colgate.
Good stuff! Now, if they call sixty friends who call sixty friends and they all go to Goodman... maybe, just maybe, we can break 10,000 fans.