Wednesday, October 04, 2006

College Football: Give it back to the Fans

(published in The Davidsonian, October 4, 2006)

During last Saturday’s football game between Davidson and San Diego, I walked into the home stands 10 minutes before kickoff and sat down amongst an excited group of community families, alums of every age, families of players and coaches and students. Although the stadium filled up, there was room for everyone who wanted to watch the game. Tickets were affordable, and the atmosphere was enjoyable despite the eventual 50-21 outcome.

This scene was quite different from the college football experience of three weeks ago when I went to Death Valley to watch the Clemson-North Carolina game. The entire campus was packed with families and students and boosters, 84,000 strong. There was something very special about being in the midst of so large a social organism rooting for my Tigers.

However, as I look back on that day as compared to Davidson’s homecoming, I wonder whether there wasn’t something missing at Clemson. Or, more specifically, whether there was a little too much of a good thing.

The consensus attitude towards everything in college football these days is that more is better. More facilities, more people, more pageantry, more yardage and more money. As a matter of fact, a lot more money. Over the last decade, revenues of college football have exploded exponentially and universities have become caught up in a spending war to attract recruits.

It doesn’t baffle us when schools like Texas and Michigan pour millions of dollars into stadium renovations every few years, but even schools from smaller conferences are beginning to spend in astronomical increments.

In his Oct. 9 article in ESPN the Magazine, Peter Keating articulates this notion by supplying evidence from various research firms showing no correlation between spending and generating university profits over the last eight years. In other words, expanding facilities and offering a better college football experience isn’t bringing any more money into the program. Perhaps the only real consequence is felt by the average fan, who has steadily had to shell out more and more money for game tickets.

Three weeks ago, I began to realize what kind of institution college football had become. I had to purchase tickets to the game on eBay because the game had been sold out for months. I ended up paying nearly three times the face value, a face value that was already higher than a comparable seat in Bank of America stadium for an NFL game. When did Clemson-North Carolina become such an exclusive affair?

During the game, I noticed around the stadium that students were the only non-VIPs to have seats that didn’t need binoculars. Many season ticket holders are required not only to pay exorbitant prices for mere upper deck seating, but also have to give more and more money to the school’s athletic foundation in order to remain eligible to season ticket purchasing. That money inevitably goes to building more facilities, which only seem to then increase ticket prices.

When one looks at the elite schools of college football, they are not necessarily defined by excessive spending, but rather generations of success. Schools with losing traditions might allocate incredible budgets for college football and still not find success on the scoreboard.

Certainly, facilities and media exposure as a result of spending help to improve recruiting, but sound coaching, principled administration and commitment to success can go a lot farther. Effective investment in meaningful projects is a required tenet of good administration. In that sense, it is not that money has nothing to do with success, it is rather that spending should have consequence and be seen as investment.

In the end, college football should be about the players, the fans, the coaches and the families. All of these groups are benefited by greater access to tickets through principled pricing. The best seats shouldn’t always go to the highest bidder. Universities should spend more money in player development and community building, ensuring that players are actually educated. Finally college football should be about football. I might seem ignorant to believe that players and fans still believe in the spirit of the game. But I saw it exhibited last Saturday at Davidson, and I know that what is good and right always has the power to succeed.

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