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Lehigh 63, Yale 35 Postgame Thoughts: The World May Have Changed, But College Football Fans Haven't

The timing between college football games I attended at the Yale Bowl was a shade under thirty-nine years.

How were both games similar?

Well, in both games Yale lost.  Also, both games were played at the Yale Bowl.  In addition, there were fans at both games wanting to have a great college football experience.

That's where the similarities end.

Many thoughts went through my head during the game this weekend, an incredibly encouraging one for Lehigh as they are surging, on a three game winning streak going into league play after scoring a grand total of 154 points in the last three games, or, if you're scoring at home, an average of over 51 points per game.

But not all the thoughts were ones about Lehigh, or Yale, or the game at hand.  Many of the thoughts I had, after staring out at the 2,196 souls that came out on an overcast, but perfectly adequate weather day to watch an extremely entertaining game, involved the fans that did not show up at one of the iconic, most storied venues in college sports.

It is said, and well known, that many people who will attend football games this season are incredibly thin-skinned.  They will only go, for example, if the team is winning.  Or if the weather is nice.  Or if they know more than 10,000 of their closest fan "friends" are also going to be there.  If any of those three things are not in play, they won't go, and no clever selling point will change their minds.

Many theories have been bandied about as to why attendance is down at college football games this year, and pretty much over the past decade.

It really hit home for me when I got up to the press box, and saw a beautiful, natural grass field, in a beautifully architected, natural bowl that was the inspiration for the Rose Bowl, among other iconic venues.

I went to a Dartmouth/Yale game at this very bowl in 1977, and it was a terrific game, with a hearty crowd, and a thrilling game.  It shaped forever how I view a college football game.

The announced attendance was over 21,000 on that crisp October day in the 1970s.

The game I went to this weekend, on this afternoon in September, 2016, the attendance was less than one tenth of the attendance of that classic game I saw in 1977.  (It's also worth mentioning that a good hunk of the fans there were definitely Lehigh fans, including traveling members of the Marching 97, which made things seem like a home game at times for the Mountain Hawks.)

A Few Seats Available
There was live music, bands, and students - all things that were present at both the 1977 and 2016 games.  The acoustics of both bands were, as ever, incredible.  The sound of both bands filled the beautiful stadium at halftime and during the game, adding soul and tradition to the proceedings.

The only thing missing were fans.

In 1977, as a kid I was wall-to-wall with other Dartmouth football fans, the section exploding with joy after the fourth-down stop that sealed their 3-0 win.

In 2016, after junior CB Quentin Jones was seriously hurt after helmet-to-helmet contact, all 2,000 fans in the stadium went dead silent, and all the players, Yale and Lehigh, took a knee out of respect.  You could hear the siren of the ambulance come, shattering the quiet, and you could hear the support folks put Jones onto the stretcher, and eventually claps could be heard as he was taken to the ambulance, and the hospital.

The key realization I has was: I am quite convinced there were more than 20,000 people in the entire world that cared about the outcome of the game, and were following the game enough in real time to care about the health of Quentin Jones after that play (as, of course, was I, very, very much).

But most of them weren't in the stadium at that time.  They were elsewhere.

They were tuned in on the radio, on internet radio, reading me talk about it on Twitter, or watching the game broadcast on a station called One World Sports, or paying to watch a simulcast of the game on the Ivy League Digital Network.

Those are exactly the people that used to physically go to the game.

It is very popular to blame the lack of attendance at college football games on the number of digital options one has to follow the ebb and flow of live events, and it is true that there are many tools to follow college football games in real time.

And heck - if I'm being absolutely honest - I don't attend every single Lehigh football game in person.  I do my best, but frequently life gets in the way.  I try to prioritize, and pick and choose.

But the truth is that all of these things are just tools.  The tools have sprung up because society itself has changed, the way we see ourselves as people have changed, and the way we worship college football has changed.

The tools are what enable me to do all this.  I'm grateful for them all.  But it has an impact on attendance.

In 1977, how did a fan of college football show his fealty to the game itself?

Say you were a Michigan fan stuck in New Haven on a nice Saturday afternoon, with nothing to do.  There was a "big game" in town with Dartmouth.  What else were you going to do that afternoon, sit in a bar with three other old folks you don't know and get wasted?  Or go to a game where you knew 21,000 people were going to show up featuring two pretty good teams?

Chances are you might fork over money for a ticket and watch the game - and you might even get fed or get a beer, if you were lucky.  Besides, what else were you going to do, wait for Texas/Oklahoma to come on ABC?

But today, every minute of every day is spend by people showing fealty to their team in some way.  Maybe it's just a Michigan iPhone case or Michigan helmet screen saver, but there's not that irrepressible need to go show that Michigan or college football fealty at the Yale Bowl on a Saturday afternoon, because all that Michigan pride was sitting under wraps all week after a tough day at the factory.

Especially if there's 10% chance of rain, and I can go to the bar with those three other old folks and ask the bartender to put on Ohio State/Rutgers.  I put in my Michigan fealty at the office during the week.  All I want now is a beer and to see if Rutgers can embarrass my Rival, and if they don't... Penn State is on somewhere.  I can even get it on my laptop if necessary.

Even if you're just a fan of college football in general, and not a specific fan of a team playing in particular, you have a place to go.  ESPN College Gameday goes to different places every week, making an event of different college football games across the country.  That fan can get up, turn on their TV, and see North Dakota State, Ole Miss, Texas, or wherever the biggest game is going to be.  They don't need to go to Yale specifically to consume college football that day.

In 1977, even the information flow on scores was extremely limited compared to today.  Going to a college football game was kind of like a mini Sportscenter, relatively speaking, where the press guys in the box would get a fax with all the latest scores to read over the loudspeakers during breaks in the action.

If you wanted to know the score of the Michigan game and you were in New Haven, there was a legitimate argument that the best place to find out the latest on Michigan was the Yale game.  And hey, you got an entertaining football game in in front of you, too.

Today information is something that is everywhere.  You can get all of it at your home easily, even more easily than at the stadium.  Some fans might get updates from the scores of other games the announcers are saying, but many fans already know and are following those games on their smartphones, sometimes even getting video snippets of big plays.  You don't go to the game just for the information, so if the game on the field is in any way lacking - physical attendance is a referendum on that, when that always wasn't the case.

In 1977, a game was an emotional event that you shared with the other physical people around you, and perhaps in the days and weeks to come you might share it with people person-to-person around the office, or maybe by telephone.  Especially if you saw something you thought was college football history.  (You  might even write about it thirty-nine years later.)

Today, though, society has changed.  Fans expect to experience something, and share it immediately.  Not only with people physically in their cheering section, but to your mom and dad and 20,000 of your closest friends sitting at home checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or any number of tools.

The common theme with all of this is that all of the fundamental aspects of fandom haven't changed from 1977 to today.

What has happened is that marketers have correctly identified the key, soft aspects of fandom, and have developed an incredibly efficient infrastructure on the backs of publicly available tool to deliver that fan experience to everyone in the world, so that you, too, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, can feel like a fan of Lehigh, Michigan, Stanford, or any other college football program - without actually physically going to the game.

The other important aspect, as far as I'm concerned, is that a significant portion of the people going to football games in 1977 was always soft support.

It is easy to idealize the 20,000 fans that went to the Yale Bowl then as dyed-in-the-wool Yale fans or Dartmouth fans, when in reality the support was always softer than people remembered at the time.  But if Facebook, Twitter, or ESPN were available then, I think that many fewer people would attended games then, too.

This force affecting college athletics is actually affecting every sporting event broadcast from a camera anywhere across the globe.  For example, I can be a Hull City soccer fan in the English Premier League without ever having set foot in the KC Stadium, the arena in Yorkshire where they play.  I can identify as a Indian Twenty20 cricket fan even though I've never seen a cricket match in person.  I don't even need to know what a cricket bat is.

So in 1977, schools didn't really need to try that hard to get fans into football stadiums.  Many fans went to games simply to breathe in college football.  Nowadays, they need to try harder to have people feel like they can immerse themselves in the fan experience, and to value their "true fan experience" of the competition of some other schools' "true fan experience".  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I think when it comes to the college football attendance debate it helps to come to two unalienable truths that need to be accepted:

* The old days are gone

* Of the non-soft-support fans that are going to football games, they are looking for an experience they can tell about to their grandkids

I'm going to be able to say for years that I was at the Yale Bowl during an extraordinary Lehigh game.  Every time a Lehigh fan asks me what the all-time passing yardage record is, I'm going to be able to say, "They're a long way from those two games in September when QB Nick Shafnisky and QB Brad Mayes passed for over 450 yards in consecutive weeks," and when a particularly good receiver comes up and puts in a good performance, I'll be able to say, "I remember when WR Troy Pelletier had over 400 yards receiving combined in two straight games.  I remember one time he was shaking his head in the end zone, he couldn't believe he was so wide open."

What I didn't say was, "When I heard the scores of other games..." or, "When I saw that replay on the Jumbotron".  Replays are now forever, thanks to different media outlets and  I can get them later.  Days from now I can catch all the offensive highlights of all the great plays for posterity's sake.  If I want scores, I'll check the app that gives me scores.  I am not dependent on the PA to give me that information.

I think the most important thing that a school can do in order to get more fans to come to football games is free, high-quality Wifi across the entire stadium and tailgate areas, and "selfie promotions" - promotions where people post on Facebook themselves at the game, wearing Brown and White, and the people that do get prizes and benefits - free Lehigh Pizza, say, or 10% off your bookstore bill.

I think, to fans nowadays, central to their experience is now free, high-quality, WiFi more than anything else.  It's the backbone of everything they want to consume in terms of information inside the stadium.

Aside from wi-fi, there are a lot of great ideas schools are trying to get fans to games, all at varying levels of cost.  There's, for example, Clemson's house DJ, which I think is an excellent, if perhaps pricey, way to entertain fans in a way separate from the action on the field.

But it doesn't have to be that expensive.  A combination of friendly tailgate policies, winning football, free WiFi and special promotions I think would do more to get fans in place than anything else.

In The Brown and White there have been discussions on ways for students to get to Murray Goodman stadium and ways to encourage students to come and at least stay for part of the game.

In that article, it talks about polices now in place that are encouraging students to stay longer and go into the game, but it also details how students generally feel about going to football games in general.
Over the past few years, these student-inspired changes included opening the tailgate lot 45 minutes earlier — at 9:45 a.m. — and having buses pick students up behind Taylor House instead of in front of Grace Hall.
Despite these changes, student attendance at games, which Allen Biddinger said has been slowly declining for years, has still not increased. 
“We made these concessions and tweaks to the (tailgate) policy with the expectation that on the other side student leaders in different groups would help drive different numbers,” Rich Haas said. “So that end of the deal has not been met.”
There's also been, according to The Brown and White, a civil war of sorts among sets students - those that go for the hard-drinking, I-don't-care nihilism of MoCos (morning cocktails), and those that prefer to have more conventional (dare I say conservative) tailgates and fans wearing the school colors of Brown and White.
“For awhile, our football team kind of felt like we were an outcast, no one came to see us,” junior TE Mike Baur said. “But I feel like it’s getting better. I know that the school is going through a lot right now with MoCos and trying to change things around, so I’d like to see where that’s going.”
Of course, enjoying morning cocktails doesn't necessarily mean not setting foot into the games, but also, nothing gets people into the turnstiles of football games like winning, which is something that's been true since Lehigh first started fielding a college football program back in 1884.

This Young Lady Deserves Free Pizza (apologies to Bryan Andrews)
A MoCo fan heading to the stadium intending to drink but not watch is sort-of cheating: trying to get the experience of the tailgate without the experience of the game.  Perhaps they don't value the experience of the game over the experience of the MoCos, which is fine, but then why not simply guzzle morning cocktails in your dorms?

I have to believe that many of the fans going for MoCos secretly want to get excited about going into Murray Goodman stadium and being entertained watching a football game.  The anti-football MoCo crowd seem a little bit too much like an ex-girlfriend who talks ten minutes too long about hating their ex-boyfriend.  I mean, they hate it so much, they're going drive or bus back out to Murray Goodman again for yet another home game just to show them how much they don't care!

I think this weekend's game versus Colgate will have a better Lehigh fan turnout than in recent home games simply because the Mountain Hawks have been winning, and - very importantly - winning in the entertaining fashion that Lehigh fans love.

Playing entertaining football will get people out to the stadium - this has been proven time and again - as is playing winning football, something that doesn't always go together.  There was a reason Air Lehigh teams brought out a lot of fans in the 80s and 90s.

Will they, or won't they, attend the actual game?  (Brown and White Photo)
I think Lehigh will never get all of that MoCo crowd into Murray Goodman, but with a big game, and the promise of a lot of points, I think more of that soft, MoCo support might find themselves going into the game this weekend.

My hope is that Lehigh can pull in more than 10,000 fans to the stadium this Saturday - a goal that I think is achievable.  Not only is Lehigh 3-2, and not only is Lehigh winning and playing entertaining football, they're also hosting Colgate in a game that is a rematch of last year's biggest Patriot League game for Lehigh.  When they met last year in Hamilton, title hopes were on the line, and I think this weekend's contest will feel like an October title game.

And that's what fans really want.  They want the feeling that the games are important.  They want to feel entertained.  And they want to feel like they are a part of the action, not just a spectator.

It won't be like it was in 1977, 1987 or even 2007, but this weekend can instill all of those same emotions in fans headed into the stadium.  Because fans, at their core, really haven't changed as much as people believe.  People's needs and wants have changed, but their fan perceptions are no different than they were in the 1970s.  More than anything, that realization will be the key to getting people to continue attend college football games in person, at Lehigh and elsewhere.


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