November 9, 2010

Attendance, Moolah, and the BCS

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By The Daily Axe Staff

Ever been to a football game at Stanford Stadium? If you have, you probably weren’t part of a sellout crowd. Stanford, at least in recent years, has been hard pressed to put fannies in the seats on football Saturdays on the Farm, and last weekend’s nationally televised game against Arizona has transformed the attendance issue into a full-fledged public relations nightmare for the higher-ups in the Stanford Athletics Department. Ted Miller framed his Arizona-Stanford game recap with mentions of the low attendance, the Stanford Daily noted the stadium’s scarcely-populated sections, Rule of Tree had a post dedicated to Stanford football’s attendance woes, and Jon Wilner called the attendance “pathetic”. But what’s really going on here? Why can the Card not attract a sell-out crowd for a primetime, ABC-televised game against a top-15 conference opponent?

We can’t cover this issue comprehensively, and don’t believe anyone who claims that he can. But consider several factors that almost certainly explain the lack of attendance, and perhaps make the lack of fan support both expected and understandable. Let’s begin with the student body factor. Stanford is one of only 2 private universities in the PAC-10 (along with USC) and Stanford’s 6600 undergraduates make it the smallest university in the conference. That’s an inherent disadvantage in filling the stadium, right away. One commenter on Rule of Tree writes that “When even undergrads can’t name their football coach or Heisman-finalist [running back Toby Gerhart in 2009], there is a fundamental problem with the student population.” Actually, there isn’t. Stanford students can name the President of the United States and a good portion of his cabinet (which the vast majority of Americans cannot do), the periodic table of the elements, or the 18th century’s most influential English poets. With all due respect to football–and we here at The Daily Axe obviously care a lot about it–those things are much more important than being able to identify a football coach or one member of the senior class, athletically distinguished as he may have been. Consider also that football is not generally the sport of choice for intellectuals, if they have a sport of choice at all. Let’s not pretend that Stanford’s mission is educating football fans. Its mission is educating leaders and scholars and citizens.

Remember also that the Red Zone, Stanford Stadium’s student section, has been full for every game for which students have been on campus this year (yes, it was not full for the Sacramento State game on September 4, two weeks before the academic term began). If there’s a problem with attendance, it is not the fault of Stanford students, who have loyally supported this team throughout the season, even in the rain against a terrible Washington State team two weeks ago. Don’t blame the students, who take time out of their weekends to support football players on game days. Stanford students managed to be called “College Football Superfans” this week by Sports Illustrated. What more do you want?

If anyone is to blame, it’s the local fans. But who are we to demand that someone attend a football game? Let’s be honest: Stanford is located in one of the most affluent, well educated, and naturally beautiful locations on Earth. There is a myriad of activities for a Silicon Valley or San Francisco resident to do on a Saturday night, and we can’t honestly hold someone accountable for simply not attending a college football game. San Francisco is not a college football town, and it likely never will be. This isn’t without precedent–after all, ask anyone who lives in the Northeast how relevant college football is, and you’ll likely get something like “It’s not,” or “What’s that?” in response. Sure, the South and the Midwest are crazy about their football, but the various economic, cultural, and sociological factors that make that so are not going to crop up in Northern California any time soon.

Even Jason Turbow, whose piece on attendance largely got the issue right, puzzlingly wrote the following for The Bay Citizen today: “If the coach [Jim Harbaugh] gives all he has to the football program, he’s allowed to expect similar from the fans.” Harbaugh is paid, quite generously, for his services, and coaching football is his occupation and career. That isn’t true for fans, and any fan that gives all he has to football probably suffers from a very strange social life and unemployment.

Also note that going to a Stanford football game is an expensive outing. On top of the price of admission, Stanford adds a hefty parking fee, and concessions at Stanford Stadium rival prices of many professional sports venues. In an economy where unemployment is a very big problem and many families’ budgets are already strapped tightly, attending college football games doesn’t seem that important. Football is still a great sport, and the pageantry and tradition of the college game make going to a game a very enjoyable experience. But this is a game, everyone. Have some perspective. Coaches should be honored and flattered when their games garner sell-out crowds, rather than upset when they can’t fill a 50,000-seat stadium. If they are upset–and members of the Stanford coaching staff have explicitly stated their disappointment with stadium attendance–then that’s simply a sign of entitlement from people who don’t realize that football is, after all, just a game.

Of course, none of this detracts from the team’s superb play this year. Virtually no one–with the possible exception of Kirk Herbstreit–predicted that Stanford would perform as well as they have so far in 2010. As the #6 team in the BCS rankings, the Cardinal have a chance to break into the top 5 nationally with 3 more wins and an overall 11-1 record in the regular season. If they can win out, then Stanford should have a place in a BCS bowl, be it in Pasadena or elsewhere. Given the workings of the BCS and the bowl system, though, many commentators have suggested that Stanford won’t be chosen to play in a BCS bowl. Why? Fan support, and therefore revenue for whichever bowl selects Stanford, simply isn’t high enough.

There isn’t too much to say about this, mostly because it’s blatantly corrupt and works against the very goals of collegiate athletics. College sports exist to foster productive competition, not to use young men as revenue-generating pawns for corporate sponsors and television networks. Stanford should play in a BCS bowl–if they finish with an 11-1 record–because they earned the right to do so, and should not be held back from playing in such a game strictly because the BCS bowl executives distrust Cardinal fans’ willingness to attend the game and dish out money at the stadium on gameday.

That said, the BCS isn’t going to change any time soon, and Stanford would merely join a long list of teams that have been robbed of earned accolades by the BCS system (Boise State, anyone?). So if you want to see Stanford in a BCS bowl, you should consider RSVP’ing to this Facebook event, which was started by a Stanford fan and seeks to bolster support for Stanford’s BCS aspirations. At time of writing, the event had over 3,500 respondents, and bigger numbers mean a better chance that BCS organizers will notice the event and reconsider the financial viability of Stanford’s place in a BCS bowl.

If that happens, perhaps we can stop hearing about how lame Stanford fans are.

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About the Author

The Daily Axe Staff
The Daily Axe is an independent Stanford sports website covering Cardinal athletics year-round. Find The Daily Axe on http://DailyAxe.com and on social media via the links below.


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