Imagine the scene. The PA announcer queues the music. An explosion of smoke and fireworks precedes the bursting out of jacked-up, ravenous players, donned in school colors and ready for contact, onto a freshly painted football field. 68,000 similarly donned fans are aroused from their long winter slumber as they take to their feet to welcome their beloved football team back to the field with a series of shrieks, cries and wails that would make even the most rambunctious of kindergarteners blush.
It's not a pipe dream. In fact, this exact scene played out several times over the past weekend. Tuscaloosa. South Bend. Baton Rouge. Columbus. Auburn. State College.
Yup. State College! Even Penn State is drawing in 68,000 fans to their spring game.
The point of this editorial is to explain my belief that UW is missing a huge opportunity to reconnect with their students, with the community, with local fans and with traveling fans by not making a bigger event out of the annual Spring Game - now known as the "Spring Event and Fan Fest". In this new format, the traditional Purple and Gold Game has been replaced by a glorified practice complete with normal drills and a few situational scrimmages all packaged together with some fun sideshow events for fans and broadcast on the fledgling Pac 12 Network. It's a great celebration - don't get me wrong - but it is a pale substitute for the traditional Spring Game.
Look, I get it.
If this were purely a football thing, then I would be all in favor of not burning the 15th and final practice of spring camp on a full scrimmage. I accept the argument that it isn't the most efficient use of the time, in particular when you have a young roster and are trying to maximize reps for players competing hard for roles on the team going into fall. I also accept that there is an injury risk, albeit not really all that much greater than what one might encounter through the course of any other practice. I am also fully sympathetic to the argument that the 85-man scholarship limit has really handcuffed the flexibility of coaches to produce these kinds of made-for-TV fan spectacles. It's not easy to fully staff two full teams when you are dealing with a spring-time roster that includes injured players and is missing all of the incoming freshman who won't arrive until the fall.
Believe me, I'm sympathetic to each of these arguments. They make perfect sense... from a purely football perspective.
I submit to you that this argument is less of a football one and more of a "seize the opportunity before you" one.
There are a long list of benefits to the program as a whole that could be gained by producing and marketing a real Spring Game. From working out the bugs in changes to the in-game stadium experience, to engaging the student body more proactively in the football experience to creating opportunities for charitable service and community outreach, the list of benefits that could come with a spectacle on the scale of a Michigan or Ole Miss Spring Game is endless.
In particular, I think the UW is missing a real opportunity to create momentum in the fan engagement category. Packaged correctly, the Spring Game provides a unique opportunity to cater an intimate experience for the most dedicated fans that cannot easily be replicated during the regular season. Many of the same activities planned for the fan fest - such as autographs and pictures, running and tackling contests and gear dress-ups - would still play very well in such an event, but would get amplified across a broader number of attracted fans whose primary interest would be to get a preview of the "players of the future" in a live game setting.
On top of the benefit that comes with attracting more people comes the opportunity to provide an outlet for more fan engagement in the form of fan involvement, youth engagement and charitable programs. Arizona embraced this opportunity by having head coach Rich Rodriguez share playcalling duties with fans during their spring game. Beyond this kind of frivolity, the opportunity to open the doors and provide access for youth programs, charitable programs and students to seating that during the season is viewed as "high value" is a great benefit in the overall cultivation of a passion for UW sports in the community as a whole.
Finally, with a captive audience of 35k ... 50k ... or 65k fans, the UW Athletic Department has a real opportunity to cross-promote the other spring sports programs and to allow fans to interact with athletes and coaches in those areas. To not leverage football as a way to draw bodies to Montlake and help to promote other parts of UW's excellent spring sports program like Crew, Golf, Softball, Baseball and Tennis seems like a big whiff.
I know that reinstating the spring game isn't without its challenges. Coaches don't want to waste the 15th practice. Rosters are incomplete. Logistics are more complicated. Yet somehow, someway many other college programs figure out a way to make it happen. Simplified playbooks, expanded utilization of walk-ons and hybrid concepts that involve more situations and alternative scoring schemes are all tactics that coaches across the country have implemented to make the concept a palatable one as they try to give fans what they want.
It can happen and I for one would love to see it happen again one day.