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Monmouth 23, Lehigh 21 Postgame Commentary: The Importance of Burst Bubbles

The decision was made.  We were going up to my parent's house over Labor Day weekend.

I knew it was the right decision, the correct decision.  My dad, who had suffered a back injury, was rehabbing, requiring for the first time in his incredibly active life to require the use of a walker to get around. 

He and my mother wouldn't be driving down to Lehigh for any football games in the next couple of months, which effectively meant if I was going to spend any significant time with them, it was going to be this weekend - opening weekend.  The weekend that I wait for with fevered anticipation for more than nine months.

But sometimes bubbles need to be burst.  

For the last nine months, I've lived in bubbles: a bubble of Lehigh football, FCS expertise, and a focus on the football season.  I had lived in a bubble where I thought my father was still invincible, even in retirement unable to stay in one place, always able to come down with mom to visit once a season and take in a game or two - in between musical engagements, my mother's teaching commitments, and countless other trips and activities.


When I can't attend a Lehigh game in person, it's in reality a stressful experience for me.  It makes no rational sense whatsoever, but it is.  

No matter how good the reason is, no matter how impossible it is, there is something in the back of my head that says I should go, despite the fact that more than ever it's possible to cover most of the drama from a TV screen.

These days, it is easier than ever to vicariously experience the event of college football at home.

If you live in the Lehigh Valley and get Service Electric 2, you can watch the whole game on TV, in HD, on a large screen in your home.  And worldwide, you don't even need that: you simply need to know where the Campus Insiders website is, a halfway-decent broadband connection, and some way to stream from the internet to your big-screen TV, either through a Roku box or Google Chromecast.

But to me, still, experiencing the game in this way is not at all the same as actually attending.  You don't see the kids in the sideline throwing up, dehydrated, trying to get back into the game.  You don't notice the player on the trainers table holding his leg, his season on the brink of being over.  You don't get a glimpse of the opposing head coach pumping his fist in the air, a split second before the TV camerafolks get the shot for the viewers at home.

There are so many football moments only experienced by actually attending in person, from the fans' specific cheers and jeers to the reactions of the coaches through the thin walls of the press box.  I know this.

That's why, on the way up to my parents' house, I was silent, mopey and still in my bubble, grumpy that I wasn't going to be able to go to Murray Goodman.  

By the time I entered my parents' house, though, I could feel that bubble bursting.  As my mother greeted us and we got caught up, as we bragged on our son's first week in advanced math in junior high school, the bubble burst.  

As we accompanied my dad, who was admittedly zipping around in his new walking apparatus, we talked Lehigh and the Boston Red Sox, in the way only fathers and sons can, the bubble burst.  All that grumpiness about not attending the game in person faded away.  We talked about how upset we were with David Price, Clay Bucholz and the rest of Boston's agonizingly awful middle relief, but thanks to the magic of the internet, we were able to take in the Red Sox stomping of the hapless A's that evening.

*****

The next day I got all my electronics tuned into the game.  

When I'm not lucky enough to attend a Lehigh game in person, I try to at least experience everything I possibly can in and around the game that is available online.  In a way that would have been impossible to describe even just a few years ago, I am able to craft something that passes as covering a Lehigh football game.  It's not the same, but I can make it work somewhat.

I listened to the radio pregame show, and tweeted about it.  I put up the Campus Insiders stream of the Service Electric 2 feed, and watched the game as the avid fan I am.  I followed Twitter, and reacted to events the same way a surprising number of other fans uniquely enjoy Lehigh football as well.

Something that has changed in the realm of Lehigh football, perhaps just this year, is the number of people watching the game online vs. watching the game live.

If you look at the raw feed of the Lehigh game, you can see how many viewers their event had:


Compare this to the actual attendance number:


Compared to attendance from home openers the last two years, that's a staggeringly low number.  Least season, 6,971 fans saw Lehigh beat Penn in the opener in mid-September, and in 2014, which also took place over Labor Day weekend, 6,519 showed up to see a close loss to James Madison.

I think, as Lehigh fans, we are accustomed to Rivalry games with Lafayette being experienced more from a screen than in person.  But I'm not sure this has ever been the case with most Lehigh regular-season games, and in this case, we can demonstrate that the game was experienced more virtually than it was in person.

What does this mean?  It means that football fans, more than ever, put themselves into bubbles.  It's become a simple exercise to fire up a computer and a TV screen and, on a broadband connection you're paying for anyhow, watch the game.  It's the biggest challenge of college football programs everywhere: to make the stadium experience so inviting, and so great, that more local people - not just diehard fans like myself - take in a game.

Are folks who expect non-Rivalry Lehigh games to break 10,000 fans living in a bubble?  I don't know, but what I do know is that there are a lot of people nowadays who opt for the flexibility of game switching and the ability to partially experience six games rather than fully experience one game.  It will take some serious work to pull those people in, and it will probably take a couple of football teams playing the game with Top 25 rankings.   Lehigh has not been ranked in any Top 25 rankings since 2013.

In a way it's oddly comforting that, when I immerse myself in the full Lehigh online fan experience, that it's the way most Lehigh fans experience the game for themselves.

"Here he goes again, cursing at that monoitor"
But more than ever, I was aware that it's a bubble I put myself in.  As I watched the game, privately cursed a bad play here or cheered a good play there, I noticed all my family members had sidled away to other parts of the house.  Even the dog quietly found somewhere else to go, the walls of my bubble soapily getting built around me.

Sometimes I'd announce to nobody in particular, "They tied it up!"
The members of my family would turn to me and smile, happy for Lehigh, of course, but mostly just happy for me.  

Sometimes I think my mother, father, son, wife and dog seem to think of my Lehigh fandom as some sort of affliction, like a crazy form of Tourette's syndrome that manifests itself on Saturdays and causes their beloved family member to utter nonsensically, "Damned interception!"

As I watched the game, I wondered if the Lehigh players had put themselves in their own media bubble, thinking themselves invincible before playing a single down.  

At halftime, down 7-0, having only gained 49 yards on offense, I thought of head coach Andy Coen in the locker room, peeling the paint off the walls with his words for the team, trying to burst the bubble.  

It seemed to work somewhat, as Lehigh rallied, but didn't work soon enough or effectively enough, as Monmouth was still able to hold on to win.

I felt like being upset for the attendance being so low for opening day, but then again, where was I?  Not at Murray Goodman.

As correct as I feel my decision was to come up here for family reasons, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to lament the lack of attendance when I was too busy to go as well.

After the game, I felt the need to survey the reaction of the global, unrestrained, internet, as I always do.

Normally after a game, I'll poke around the different online communities and see what the different fans are saying - look at Twitter or the Lehigh Sports Forum.

But being with my family, doing more important things, the bubble of depression from the loss was broken up by something different than a bunch of strangers - a bunch of actual family members, with an actual home-cooked meal, of shepards' pie with home-grown vegetables, and homemade tiramisu.  As I was agonizing over a painful Lehigh loss, my mother, wife and son were preparing a restaurant-quality meal, and my father was opening up bottles of wine he had found from somewhere.

I've noticed something about online communities over the last few years.  

When they were starting out, sports fans were so wowed by the ability to actually connect with anybody with the same strange fan obsession, they behaved fairly well.  There was a feeling of technology being a way to enable a wonderful community of people with common interests.  On the whole, this was seen as a positive force for good in the world, a form of "gee-whiz".

But many online sports communities don't have that same "gee-whiz" feeling anymore.

The joy of discovery of like-mindedness has been replaced with nastiness.  Many communities, rather than welcoming different people or differing opinions, would rather spend their time ridiculing anyone with a different opinion than theirs, especially anyone new who might want to express any opinion.

More than ever, so many communities act as if the people we're talking to and talking about aren't real flesh-and-blood people that aren't invulnerable.  It's as if the flesh-and-blood people were replaced with funny avatars, caricatures of human beings.  

It is quite something to get a text on vacation from your sister with the words, "I don't want to alarm you, but..." - the seven words you never want to read in a text.  It's also quite something to then learn the sequence of events that almost left my father dead, but with a spinal injury that required immediate surgery and would require continuous rehab to get back to where he was.

Perhaps it was the near-death experience of my father that made me decide to try to cut out the parts of mt life where people don't respect you for who you are.  You grow less patient with the haters, those who think for whatever reason your opinion is trash - ironically becoming the same nasty defensive person in reverse, most likely perpetuating the cycle you're trying to go against.

Instead I found myself in quite a nice, new bubble with my father, using multiple screens in the house at once, following all the different games and sports coverage that TV offered.  Golf.  Red Sox baseball.  Sox up by double-digits?  Switch to the USC/Bama game - hey, USC scored first!  Whoa, that got ugly fast - switch to South Dakota State/TCU.

Texas Marching Band
Taking in the full breadth of college football games this weekend, the gap between the atmosphere of games at TCU, Dallas, Austin and the game at Murray Goodman couldn't have been greater.  Seeing Texas' marching band on TV, which was well over 200 strong, in the middle of a sellout crowd of over 100,000 burnt orange fans was incredible.

Whether people like it or not, the Lehigh game is competing with the Texas game for people's attention.  It's unrealistic to think that a Mountain Hawk game would compete with UT's multi-million dollar production, but it's not unrealistic to think that a Lehigh game can and should be a fun, accessible event that is a solid enough production so that more people realize that they can and should be there over experiencing it vicariously on TV.

On Saturday, after my son and my mother went to bed, I looked in the liquor cabinet and wiped the dust off some twenty-year old port my dad had hidden in some hard-to-access portion of his liquor cabinet, and poured a glass for myself, my wife, and my dad.  After a toast, we sat back in our chairs and watched if the Jackrabbits could tie the game up again.

It was great.  Finally, a bubble where I don't have to answer any questions and can just be.

Getting my father out of his comfort zone, I think, was a very good thing for him.  With guests, he needs to do more things, clean some stuff up here, do some hosting there.  As pleasant as his bubble is, it was good of me and my family to pop that bubble and change things up.  Same with my mother, who was so thrilled to have us up and to have the family work on harvesting the organic produce out of her garden.

And maybe that's what this loss will do for the Mountain Hawks, too - take them out a comfort zone that, frankly, wasn't something this team has earned yet.

The Monmouth game can either be a valuable lesson for this team or a place where this team starts to give up.  

The lesson that was learned, hopefully, is that it's going to take hard work to make this season a success - four quarters of hard work.  It's not enough to show up early in the second half and win a nailbiter, especially with upcoming games against a brutal group of Eastern teams: Villanova, Penn, Princeton, Yale, and Colgate.  (At least three of these teams will almost certainly be ranked in the FCS Top 25.)

If Lehigh wants to be considered an elite FCS team in the East, they need to have a winning record against these five teams.  It's still possible, still, achievable - and, in fact, might be more achievable with a burst bubble from last weekend.  We'll see.

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