Radoff: Revitalizing Stanford sports fans

April 28, 2015, 11:41 p.m.

I touched on this a bit last week, but after some feedback, I thought I’d take a closer look at Stanford’s athletics attendance, some of the reasons behind those attendance levels and ways to try to address those issues.

Once upon a time, Stanford Stadium’s attendance was truly a joke. Those days of completely empty seats are long gone. However, when the second and third largest attendances of a year are Army and UC Davis, respectively (49,680, 49,509), before school has even started, there is still something wrong with the environment.

With the onset of a disappointing season coming off of 2013’s amazing run, it is normal to see a dip in enthusiasm. However, the program is not where it once was and it only took two very, very close losses to disperse a lot of enthusiasm in the fan base. Stanford attendance numbers also tend to be misleading. Many of those games sold out or came close to selling out because so many fans can afford to buy tickets but don’t bother showing up to the games. I went to both the UC Davis and Army games, and while attendance was good, it was clearly not almost sold out.

This problem isn’t simply isolated to the football program, either. In fact, football is one of the most consistent sports on campus in terms of turnout. As my colleague Shawn Tuteja pointed out, basketball suffers even more, despite the fact that Johnny Dawkins has bought out the student section so that we don’t have to pay for tickets.

It is easy to assume that those tickets are free, just as football tickets are, but Dawkins went out of his way to help create a raucous environment for his team to play in, mostly to no avail. This all begs the question of “Why?”

Why does a football program with the type of success that Stanford has had in the past struggle to maintain fanbase momentum? Why do other universities fill their seats in bad or even horrible years? It is difficult to answer those questions and the answers seem to stem from a myriad of factors.

The easiest to get at is numbers: Stanford’s fan base is comparatively smaller than many schools. Stanford has the smallest enrollment of any of the Pac-12 schools — significantly so. Stanford’s 16,750 cannot really be compared to ASU’s monstrous enrollment of 59,794. The closest to Stanford is Washington State at 21,406.

Those 4,656 additional students make a huge difference as far as attendance goes. In addition, the difference in types of student is also important. By and large, Stanford’s student body tends to be much more spread out throughout the nation and the world than most universities, well, in the world. In addition, those same students are much more likely to leave the area (despite the allure of Silicon Valley) and to be similarly spread out, perhaps even more so, after they graduate.

The small student body, spread thinly after graduation, makes it difficult to build as large a fan base as say, Ohio State, where comparatively few students leave the Midwest. But there is also the question of Stanford fans being a victim of their own success. Namely that because so many graduates go on to be very successful, they are less inclined to actually go to the games, even though they have bought tickets. It is understandable in some cases.

Those fans tend to lead fairly busy lives and would like the option of showing up to games and can still afford to pay for the option but don’t feel obligated to show up to every game. Fan bases in other areas are almost always going to take full advantage of season tickets because they cost a greater portion of their income.

By that same logic, we might assume that they might be much more easily dissuaded from showing up for reasons that would never stop the hardcore fans. Why go to a terrible game in the pouring rain when you can watch it at home in comfort? Even flip through better games while you do?

Also, California (the Bay Area in particular) is a pretty awesome place, meaning that there is a heck of a lot more to do on a Saturday in fall than there is in South Bend. This is especially important for the older members of Stanford’s fan base who don’t have the youthful stupidity to stand shirtless in the rain for three hours, even if Stanford’s offense means games are shorter.

There is also the question of prestige, one that is very visible at the professional level of sports. Ever turn on a 49ers game (obviously not anymore) and see a huge gap at the stands sitting on the 50-yard line during a sold-out game? That would be the larger corporations buying out huge swaths of seats for “business purposes,” which in my book means lording it over the plebeians. That, unsurprisingly, exists at Stanford as well, albeit at a much smaller level.

There are many other reasons as well, too many in fact, that are only of consequence in the aggregate. Far more important is what can be done about reversing this trend. I got an excellent email from a reader last week, and that reader had this to offer:

Solution: Penalize the owners of unused seats. Whether tickets are used or not can easily be tracked with the existing bar code system. If a seat goes unused for ____ (I say two) games during a season, it is not renewed the following year — that seat goes back into the pool for the next person in line.

This will at least provide an incentive to find someone who will actually attend the game.

Of course, it might be an Oregon or an SC fan, but that is better than an empty seat to show on the TV camera.

To correct this problem, give an incentive for putting the tickets back into a Stanford fan pool. Or at least promote this concept. “If you can’t get out and cheer for the Card, give the ticket to someone who will” ­– A Long Time Stanford Fan (LTSF).

I found myself agreeing with almost every aspect of this solution. I won’t complain about the availability of tickets, especially when I am rapidly approaching the status of alumnus, but the stadium doesn’t look nearly as good with big gaps in the bleachers.

By using negative incentives, Stanford can make it so there aren’t those gaps. There are other incentives that could have a positive impact on the community as well. Stanford fans that have tickets that they know they will not use and that don’t need the money should have the option to donate their tickets to needy students in areas where they maybe can’t afford to buy tickets.

Better yet, have those unused tickets available to lower-­income students on an academic basis. I am positive that many season ticket holders that can’t make games would be more than happy to see their tickets put to good use.

Be like LTSF, who gave his unused ticket away to a kid that may very well be a fan for the rest of his life because of it.

Contact Nic Radoff at nradoff ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Nic Radoff '15 is now officially from Oakland and is a proud to be a history major and a Latin-American studies minor. Nic was a staff writer for women's soccer and follows football extensively, whether his editors let him write about it or not. He is a proud member of the men's club lacrosse team and invites you all to come watch most Saturdays, even though you might not see him on the field much. He enjoys spending time with his family, hiking with his husky Artoo, lamenting his A's and maintaining that things get better with age.

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