Hi all, roundtable topic for this week: Given Christian Caple’s article earlier this week on the importance of filling up the stadium for the financial health of the athletic department, what matters most to you in terms of gameday experience? I have heard a lot of complaints about “gameday experience” on Twitter and elsewhere, but that phrase can mean a lot of different things to different people. What would actually move the needle for you in terms of desire to go to more Husky home games?
There is plenty of low-hanging fruit, such as scheduling, start times, lines to get into the stadium and concession lines, and cost. I’m going to start with a personal annoyance- the length of the games. The most recent data I could find is that FBS games averaged over 3:27 per game in 2021. I found an interview with the Big 12 commissioner saying that he wanted to get games to 3:15. These are both way too long! A three hour event is about as long as I want to watch anything in-person- sports, movies, concerts. If it goes over that length, I start to lose interest. I’m already visiting friends at a tailgate before the game and adding another 30 minutes on the backend of the game without any additional action is not improving the entertainment value. Part of the change has been the move to more hurry-up offenses and more passing. When teams huddle and run the ball, there are fewer clock stoppages, which means the 60-minute game clock goes by faster.
The fact that the game has changed so drastically over the last 20-years away from huddling and running without any corresponding change to the rules for time of play is bad governance. There are a few ways to move things more quickly- spotting the ball faster, shortening the play clock, running the clock on incomplete passes, running the clock on first downs, trading some dead-ball commercial breaks for in-game advertising- that it shouldn’t be so difficult to shave time off the total game time.
But I think one thing to start off with is that it feels like the marketing and gameday staff have tried too hard where they shouldn’t and not hard enough where it matters if that makes sense. Like last game I went to was in 2019 pre-covid and they tried to do something on the big screen that they told everyone was supposed to be “a new gameday tradition” or something dumb (it was some chant on I want to say 3rd down or something...) and no one was listening and no one cared because, hear me out, we have 100 years of “traditions” and if a new one’s gonna happen, it’ll just happen. The easiest way to ruin the vibe is to try to manufacture crap when we have, again, 100 years of stuff that’s real and organic and most importantly definitively Washington. But I feel like the thing that’s supposed to differentiate college football (and college sports in general) is that their genesis, history, and the subsequent experience that’s come out of those isn’t as some franchise that’s essentially a regional branch of a giant corporation, but as an athletic representative of a community institution. As is, it feels less organic and just... sincere and Washingtonian than gamedays when I was a kid (which could just be poor memory, who knows). And I realize on some level this is true across CFB since it’s just reached a level of exploded capitalism that’s taken a bunch away from the specific qualities that make us love CFB no matter where you are in the country.
Also, what I’m hearing from you Andrew is we should outlaw all air raid concepts, correct? Say it with me everyone: No more Hal Mumme! No more Hal Mumme!
Obviously getting people in the stands early would really help, they have worked on it but they still need to do some stuff to encourage people to get to their seats. Production wise, I think the marketing department could do a better job at looking at creating traditions that would help rally all Husky fans together. I remember 5-6 years ago on 3rd down they would pipe in howling dog sounds to get the crowd amped up. Recently it feels like that has fallen off. It’s gotten very commercialized recently (which is a sign that we are doing whatever we can to make money), but they could do a way better job getting local celebrities or high-profile former players and have them interact at games. It feels like every school that Has a good game day experience has good interactive traditions with their fans at the game and for whatever reason UW hasn’t found theirs. (Not that I expect UW to do this but one cool thing the Seahawks do is do a comparison of Seattle versus their opponent- it may be fun to do that at UW- like if we play Oregon- which campus is bigger- which stadium is bigger, which program has won more national titles)- the last thing I would really, really like to see is UW get more students in the stands- look at moving them closer to the action and getting them more amped up and affect things. This is the #1 fall off I have seen from UW moving the student section from midfield to the end zone (less students there and engagement from them and the ability to affect the game).
I guess if I break down what the question is asking it’s “What can the UW do to make me more likely to come pay money to watch the game in person than sit home and watch it on TV?” And what that really gets down to is “What are the things that are irritating about attending a game in person? What are the things that are better about attending in person than watching on TV?” Taking them in that order, first up are the things that are irritating:
Cost is an issue: I’m fortunate that I’m in a place in my life where the cost of season tickets isn’t a huge burden, and while I could certainly question whether the price I’m being charged reflects true market value (all the empty seats in the stadium and the seats being offered for pennies on the dollar on the secondary market strongly suggest the answer is “no”) I tend to look at my ticket costs as me donating to the athletic department. But plenty of would-be fans aren’t in as fortunate a position, so the cost of tickets compared to perceived value is a problem, and is definitely a limiting factor for many.
Food quality and time spent in lines is an issue: We live in a big city with a lot of great food; while there are some good local outlets selling food in the stadium, I think it could (and should) be better. And even more irritating is how long it can take to get food. If I’m going to settle for a hot dog for me and a pretzel for my son, I don’t want to have to spend all of halftime (or longer) in line to get it. Can we please insist on certain staffing levels for food vendors to try to reduce wait times? The Zone has some good options for food, but it’s a long walk to get there and is really only a realistic option before the game starts (assuming you care about being in your seat for the game, and you should care). Could we get more specialized food carts from local restaurants in the concourses?
Inconsistent and late start times are an issue: While acknowledging that game start times are determined by our TV partners and allowing them to set them equals more money, it’s still irritating to have wildly varying start times throughout the season and made worse by the fact we often don’t know when they’ll kick off until less than two weeks prior, making planning difficult. While I don’t hate the late start times, they were a major issue in prior years when my son was a little kid - I wasn’t going to bring a 6-year old to a game that kicked off at 8PM. I’m going to sound like the aging “Get off my lawn!” dude that I’m becoming, but I much preferred when every game started at 1PM.
Drunk fans are an issue: Look, I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I don’t think I’m the only one. I enjoy a beer or two, but I’ve never been someone that got into the whole “get a major buzz on to see a game”. Some people are fine with several drinks in them, but some aren’t. Some get really obnoxious and/or belligerent and make being anywhere near them really unpleasant. I wasn’t in favor of selling beer throughout the stadium, and the past year of experiencing it only reinforced my view. I get that it improves revenue and a majority of folks want it, but for me personally, it’s a turn-off to being there in person.
Here are the things that either are or should be better about attending in person, and how the UW experience rates:
Being there with fellow fans: This really is the crux of seeing a game in person IMO - being surrounded by like-minded fanatics and feeling that communal bond when things go right. Unfortunately attendance has been slipping, and fan enthusiasm isn’t what it used to be. The UW needs to figure out how to get more people in the stadium, get them in their seats early and get them involved.
Having an experience that’s unique to UW: When I go to a Husky game, I don’t want it to feel like a Seahawks game. College football should have a special feel to it that’s different from pro sports. I love school songs, I love traditions like “Tequila” and “Louie Louie” and “Everybody’s Everything”, I love Captain Husky (even if v.2.0 isn’t quite up to the original), I love the cheer team and the yell kings firing up the student section. I miss that actual cheerleading isn’t really a thing for most of the stadium since the students got moved to the end zone, I miss that most of the music you’d hear at the game came from the marching band and not something being played on the big screen and blaring through the stadium speakers and I’m bummed that many in the stands don’t appear to know (or don’t care to sing) “Bow Down to Washington”. I’m not opposed to fun stuff being played on the jumbotron, but can we find a few winners and stick with them to create new traditions? Can we minimize how much we’re constantly having stuff blared at us between plays that isn’t the marching band or cheer squad? I recognize that this probably reflects a generational divide and that this (once again) identifies me as an “old fart”, but so be it.
I feel for Jen Cohen and the UW folks. I suspect there’s a pretty wide range of opinions out there about what constitutes a better game day experience. I expect that the number crunchers feel like the current pricing produces the highest revenue even if it depresses attendance. I get that she and the school are at the mercy of whatever TV deals the conference can put together, and the declining popularity of the conference and our placement on the west coast means we have to take what we can get for start times in order to maximize TV revenue. But I think there’s still room to improve things. If she and the department aren’t careful they’re going to find whole generations that just don’t have the same passion for Husky football and/or that don’t care about seeing games in person. At some point more weight has to be placed on attendance over revenue to ensure that there still are fans wanting to pay money to see them play in 30 years and to hopefully enrapture a few of the next wave of ultra-wealthy folks to spend lavishly on boosting Husky athletics. (edited)
I do agree with a lot of what you said Kirk. Especially your last few sentences — just like with so many companies, college football and the institutions that dictate it (from media companies down to athletic departments across the country trying to keep up) have shown so many instances of the classic Big Freakin’ Company move where they’ll sell out quality and subsequent long-term financial sustainability to make the quick buck. In UW’s case, stuff like moving the student section, lessening the band’s influence to try to stay #hipwiththekids with pre-recorded music, and like you mentioned, ticket costs.
For example, for me the last many years (pre-COVID) I only went to one game a year max because I couldn’t afford more, and that was even with pretty much the worst seats possible. Now I finally would be able to afford a few more, but it probably (read: definitely) wouldn’t be a responsible use of my money. And I’m not unique in that situation even remotely. I can’t even imagine having kids and trying to put together the money if say you have two and a spouse to pay for. (On the other hand, Mariners games became a thing my friends and I would go to a handful of times per season the last five or so years because you could get $25 tickets and it was a great excuse to hang out.) The end result is the demographic for UW football games skews richer and older than it could otherwise — and generally speaking, a 60 year-old Microsoft exec is probably gonna be a bit more reserved and muted. (This is not a general knock on 60 year-old Microsoft people. I know plenty, and you’re all great, and I’m sure some of you go nuts on 3rd down.)
Because of that I also share your fears Kirk that UW’s draining their future of a sustainable, invested fanbase, especially when you add in some of the other factors you mentioned like start time. Growing up, almost everybody in elementary school was a Husky or Coug; it is extremely difficult for me to imagine that’s going to continue being the case with the prohibitive expense, especially factoring in how much Seattle’s become a transplant town. Oh, and I don’t think you’re an old fart for disliking 7 PM starts.
Anyways, my main point here is: If you or anyone you know was ever in the 300 sections of Mariners games from 2017 - 2019 and kept hearing some dude chant about how the Yankees suck and he loves Mike Piazza, you may be entitled to a hand-written apology card from me on behalf of my friend Matt, who is the most stereotypically loud Jewish-Italian New Yorker to have lived in Washington the last decade, and whose dulcet tones could’ve been put to good 3rd down usage had Husky Football tickets been less expensive.
Kirk- I like how you phrased the positive draws of the in-person experience because it’s easy to forget what drew us there in the first place and why we wall want it to be the best experience possible. The sense of community for people with a shared experience is fairly unique to college sports. The traditions that go with that are very fun. It’s also a really good product. Watching a great college football game or individual play in person evokes a type of emotional response that’s hard to replicate and you certainly can’t get at home in front of a TV. With that said, I agree with all your critiques. The most bizarre reality over the last few years is that buying season tickets has been a definitively bad investment. If you bought comparable seats for every game on the secondary market, you’d save a ton of money over pre-buying in bulk. It means the school is almost taking advantage of that sense of community or loyalty, which makes me feel like a sucker. Not a great relationship to have when you’re supporting a brand or institution.
I also like Aaron’s idea of tailoring the fan interaction segments to have more to do with the school or the opponent rather than just being vehicles for advertising or something they saw on a jumbotron at another stadium.
Part of what makes this topic interesting to me is that people have truly distinct interests and desires from games. I’m interested to see what commenters have to say below, because the range is so wide.