Trying to fill a stadium

Note:  Yes, this is long.  It needs to be, though.  (Believe it or not, it could have been longer — I did some judicious editing.)  It can be read in stages if necessary, I suppose.  It’s one of the two longest posts I’ve made on this blog, along with my rundown of The Citadel’s brutal hoops history, which was made prior to basketball season.  After I made that post, the basketball team had one of its best campaigns ever.  If that’s the kind of karma attached to long essays, then the average attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium will approach 20,000 fans this season.

In 2007 The Citadel went 7-4, its first winning season in a decade.  There was plenty to be optimistic about in 2008, especially since the major renovation work to Johnson Hagood Stadium had been completed in the off-season.  Lots of folks were expected to come out to see if the Bulldogs could maintain their success while enjoying the comforts of a stadium with actually decent restroom facilities.  Instead, the school averaged almost 1,500 fewer fans per game than it had in ’07 (and 2,000+ fewer than it had in 2006).  What happened?

Well, the answer to that is complicated.  I want to address some of the issues related to attendance, and attendance specifically at The Citadel’s home football games.

I want to start, though, by pointing out something that is obvious, but gets forgotten about sometimes when alums talk about attendance.  For a school of The Citadel’s size, its historical football attendance is great.  Not good, great.  Even in a disappointing year (last season the average attendance per home game was just 12,261), The Citadel had an attendance-to-undergrad ratio of 6 to 1.  Do you know how many schools out there (especially FCS schools) would kill for even a 2 to 1 ratio?  Schools with just 2,000 students and a small alumni base really shouldn’t be doing that well.  It says a lot for the school’s loyal alums and fans that the attendance is as good as it is.

Having said that, attendance has been better before, and needs to be better again.  Anyone who looked at the budget numbers presented in an article by Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier a few weeks ago can see the importance of having Johnson Hagood Stadium filled with fans.  If attendance doesn’t start to get better, Ed Conroy is going to have to start scheduling road games against every Big XII school, not just Texas and Missouri.  The money from football props up the entire department of athletics.

The key to increasing attendance, of course, is winning.  Win more games, get more fans.  It’s a simple concept.  The only thing you have to remember about it is that success on the field generally leads to more ticket sales in the following season; there tends to be a one-year lag.  Of course, that’s if you have just one good year at a time (like going a decade between winning seasons).  Putting together a string of successful campaigns usually (but not always) leads to a more permanent base of fans.

When I opine about issues, I tend to illustrate my points in a statistical manner.  Numbers usually don’t lie, so I use them to back my point of view.  (Also, I use them because I’m a dork.)  Now, there are plenty of stats available when it comes to attendance, and I’m going to use some of them, but with a little bit of a caveat.  Let me explain what I mean.

The Citadel has had four modern-day directors of athletics — Eddie Teague, Walt Nadzak, Les Robinson, and the current AD, Larry Leckonby.  I have no way of knowing how each of them approached counting attendance at home games.  There are different ways to add up the numbers, and there is no guarantee that the way The Citadel’s numbers were counted was consistent over time.  It may be, for example, that sometimes season ticket holders were counted whether they were at the game or not, and it may be that sometimes they were only counted if they actually showed up.

I have occasionally wondered if other schools secretly counted the folks tailgating during the game, along with the teams, on-field personnel, the working (and non-working) press, concession stand employees, and mascots.  That’s not likely to be the case at The Citadel (and in the case of the non-game attending tailgaters, you’re talking about a not insignificant number.)

I have had multiple sources suggest to me that Larry Leckonby counts people who actually show up — no more, no less.  If that is the case, I applaud his philosophy.  I would count attendance the same way, although I would also count General, because he certainly deserves to be counted.

This uncertainty about published attendance figures was brought home to me one day while I was looking at the 2006 football media guide.  I spotted game writeups for the two playoff games in 1992, the win over North Carolina A&T and the loss to Youngstown State, each played at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

I attended both of those games.  I distinctly remember there were worries about the attendance, particularly for the first game against the Aggies, which took place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day, while the cadets were on furlough.  The Citadel had to have at least 12,000 folks show up to A) not lose money (there was a guarantee to the NCAA involved) and B) show that it merited hosting another playoff game.

Well, everything came up roses for The Citadel.  Plenty of folks showed up on a beautiful November afternoon to watch the Bulldogs pummel the MEAC champs, 44-0.  The next day’s edition of The Post and Courier featured a column by Ken Burger in which he detailed the “drama” behind the scenes, as representatives from the NCAA seemingly kept putting up roadblocks to the Bulldogs’ chances of hosting another game, only to eventually be bullied into submission by a pushy Walt Nadzak.  Burger wrote:  “although Citadel officials cannot announce the official attendance until after an NCAA audit, crowd estimates are about 17,000 were on hand.”

I was one of those on hand, seated right next to The Man From Macon (my ears are still ringing from his delirious shouting), and that estimate of 17,000 sounds about right to me.  Even more fans attended the game the following week; I would say that slightly over 18,000 came to see that matchup.

Then I came across the box in the ’06 media guide, and there were the “official” attendance figures:  12,300 for the North Carolina A&T game; 13,021 for the Youngstown State game.  What?

The NCAA came up with those numbers, after an “audit”.  Both figures are laughable.  I’m fairly confident that 5,000 people didn’t sneak into each game for free.  At any rate, it’s just another example of how you have to be careful when evaluating historic attendance trends.

While I wouldn’t want to bet my life on the complete accuracy of the numbers, I think evaluating them under certain parameters is instructive.  Also, I’ve got a theory on attendance that needs at least something solid behind it.  Anyway, here we go…

If you take the per-season home attendance average of the last four seasons, and then average those seasons together, you get a cumulative season average of 13,073.  That’s for 2005-2008.  If you then go back exactly twenty years, to the 1985-1988 seasons, you get a cumulative season average of 14,582.  That’s a difference of 1,509.  One reason I picked those years as a comparison is that the record on the field was very similar — 20-25 (2005-08), and 20-24-1 (1985-88).  It’s not an exact match, to be sure — the ’80s record includes Tom Moore’s last two campaigns and Charlie Taaffe’s first two seasons, while the last four years are the sum total of the Kevin Higgins era — but I think it’s a pretty good comparison.

If you go back to 1975-1978, the cumulative average for that four-year period is 16,584.  However, The Citadel in those four seasons had a slightly better record (22-22).  That period marked the transition from Bobby Ross to Art Baker.  Perhaps a better comparison to the two eras in the preceding paragraph would be the first four seasons under Ross, 1973-1976, when the Bulldogs were 19-25 overall.  Attendance in those seasons averaged out at 14,902.

So basically, from two and three decades ago until now, with similar teams, there appears to be a dropoff of between 1500-2000 fans.  You will find a lot of longtime Bulldog fans who will tell you that over the years the “base” has declined by just that amount (some will say even more, but I believe they’re thinking about stretches when the school had several successful seasons in a row).  1500-2000 fans is a big deal for a school of The Citadel’s size.  That would be like South Carolina or Clemson drawing 10,000+ fewer fans per year, and we’re talking about a longterm decline, not just a one- or two-season blip.

In comparing recent attendance to that of past seasons, I had to be careful and select similar, or at least remotely similar, circumstances, both on and off the field.  For instance, you can’t compare anything to 1989, when Hurricane Hugo disrupted not just the season, but the entire Charleston area, nor can you match “apples to apples” with 2004, the year following demolition of the West Stands, when the seating capacity of JHS was listed at 12,500.

2004 also featured the cancellation of a game against Charleston Southern (thanks to another hurricane threat), a season finale against Western Carolina that took place at the same time as a televised Clemson-South Carolina game, and a Thursday night “special” against Benedict that turned out to be an attendance disaster, with only 5,127 fans showing up.  (What I remember most about that Benedict game was “voice of the Bulldogs” Sam Evans beginning his public address announcements by saying, “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to what’s left of historic Johnson Hagood Stadium.”)

I also didn’t want to compare the recent attendance issues to periods of consecutive winning seasons, like 1979-81 and 1990-1992, or to the malaise of the late 1990s-early 2000s.

The key to the difference in the compared eras lies in the makeup of The Citadel’s base of supporters, which can be divided into two groups:  alums and their families, and those fans without an obvious connection to The Citadel.  I believe the eroding of the base has much more to do with the second group.

First, however, I want to discuss the “alums” category, including some things on which not everyone may agree, and for which I can’t point to a specific statistic.  What I believe, though, is that by and large graduates of The Citadel are significantly less likely to be natural supporters of the school’s athletic teams than, say, alums of larger state schools.

Not only are there more students at larger schools, but a higher percentage of those students grow up rooting for that particular school.  Quite a few of them actually choose to go to school based on their lifelong support of its athletic teams.  Those students eventually graduate, and so there is a fairly sizable base of true-blue fans just from that group.

Nobody who is not on athletic scholarship chooses to go to The Citadel because of its varsity sports teams.  Because of this, I think that a smaller percentage of its students are destined to become lifelong devoted fans of college football, hoops, etc.  That’s true of most small schools, of course.  (I believe The Citadel has fewer sports fans among its students than even among other small schools, however — at least, that was my impression when I was in school.  That also applied to things tangentially related to sports.  Was there buzz on campus for Bull Durham or Hoosiers?  No.  Full Metal Jacket, yes, a thousand times yes.)

That makes the fact the athletic teams are supported as well as they are by the alumni all the more remarkable.  I think it has a lot to do with the natural camaraderie built up by four years in the corps of cadets.  Alums come back for the games, but they really come back to see each other, or just to be part of the experience that is The Citadel again, even for just a Saturday afternoon.  It’s a nice vibe, complete with the justly-celebrated tailgating scene (which may be too good a scene when it comes to trying to increase attendance inside the stadium).

One of the things I have noticed, though, is that there is a bit of a “doughnut hole”, if you will, among alums attending games.  Basically, when I go to games I see a lot of alums representing the over-50 crowd, and I see a fair number of young grads, but there is a gap between those two groups in the gameday support.  You don’t really see a lot of guys in their 30s and 40s, at least in comparison.  Some might disagree with me on that, but this has been my observation.  I could be wrong, of course.

Obviously those alums in their 30s and 40s are more likely to have school-age kids, and perhaps because of that, they don’t have as much free time (or discretionary income).  I would guess that’s not particularly unusual for a college alumni fan base.  That isn’t to say there aren’t a good number of kids at the games, because there are.  However, the lack of grads in that age group at football games is noticeable (at least to me).

Okay, that’s my riff on alumni support.  Now I want to talk about the other potential game attendees, and why there aren’t as many of them as there used to be.  Here comes my theory.  (Drum roll.)

Television.

Back in the good old days (which weren’t really all that great), the NCAA controlled regular-season college football broadcasting.  It had extremely restrictive rules on how often schools could appear on TV, and also limited the number of overall telecasts.  As late as 1978 there were a total of 58 college football games broadcast on TV during the regular season (13 of which were televised nationally).  Last season there were 58 televised games involving FBS and FCS schools just in the third week of October.

Change came as a result of a 1984 Supreme Court decision that ruled the NCAA’s way of doing things violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.  Schools (and conferences) were thus free to negotiate TV deals for themselves.  The decision also coincided with the rise of cable television, notably ESPN.  Suddenly there were outlets that needed programming, and schools and conferences that had programming to offer.  The world of college football hasn’t been the same since.

It used to be that if you lived in the Lowcountry and wanted to see some college football action, but you didn’t want to drive up I-26 to Columbia (or further up the road to Clemson/Athens/Atlanta), your one option was to head to Johnson Hagood Stadium to watch The Citadel.  The odds that you could watch one of the state’s major college teams on TV instead were not good.  Between 1969-1978, there were seven televised Clemson regular-season football games  (one national, six regional).  In that same period, South Carolina only appeared on TV during the regular season five times (all regional broadcasts; the Gamecocks did not have a nationally televised regular-season game until 1980).

Even after the Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates, South Carolina did not draw a lot of TV time; for example, in 1989, the Gamecocks appeared on television during the season just once (in a 45-0 loss at home to Clemson — ouch).  This was partly due to South Carolina still being an independent in football at the time.  Once the Gamecocks joined the SEC, appearances on the tube became a more regular occurrence.  Clemson was on TV more often during the 1980s, thanks to deals the ACC had with Raycom and ESPN, although the Tigers’ appearances on TV during the early part of the decade were mostly on tape-delay, due to Clemson being on probation.

Now, of course, you can see the Tigers and Gamecocks almost every week on TV, along with many other major college programs, at every time of day and night.  You can also see a select number of FCS teams in action, but not nearly as many, and mostly as part of regional telecasts.  The Southern Conference has a modest agreement with SportSouth to show eight league games all season (The Citadel will appear in just one of them).

The constant TV exposure for Clemson, South Carolina, and the rest of the FBS schools is great for them.  It promotes their programs, and increases their respective fan bases.  For schools like The Citadel, though, it can be a problem.  Trying to attract fans who aren’t naturally affiliated with the program means competing against a lot of other entities, especially in a city like Charleston.  The Citadel isn’t on TV enough itself to get the publicity benefits that accrue to the bigger schools, and then football fans have the option to watch those other schools on television.

As an example, let’s look at last season and what the folks selling tickets at The Citadel were up against for each home date:

  • The home opener (8/30) was a night game against Webber International.  Attendance was announced as 11,247.  Quite honestly, I think The Citadel was lucky to get that many fans for what was a de facto glorified scrimmage.  South Carolina had played on Thursday night, but Clemson played Alabama in primetime in a much-hyped affair (the lesson, as always:  don’t believe the hype).  Locally, the ticket office also had to compete against a bluegrass/BBQ festival held at Boone Hall Plantation.
  • The next game at JHS came against Princeton on 9/20.  13,120 fans attended that game, most of whom would be mystified by what went on at halftime.  This was an afternoon game.  South Carolina played Wofford at night in Columbia (that game was on PPV).  Clemson played an afternoon home game against South Carolina State.  Another game of interest in the region, Florida-Tennessee, was played that afternoon as well.  An extra local competitor was the Scottish Games and Highland Gathering, held at Boone Hall, which drew 6,000 people that Saturday.  I’m guessing bagpiper groupies were not sure which event to attend.
  • On 9/27, Western Carolina came to town for a 1pm showdown.  Clemson played Maryland that afternoon in a game televised by Raycom.  South Carolina had another PPV home night game, this time against UAB.  North Carolina played Miami at noon in the only other regional game of any consequence.  Attendance for this game was only 11,216, and I don’t think the presence in town of the MOJA Arts Festival had a whole lot to do with it.
  • Elon played at The Citadel on 10/11 in a game slightly impacted by rain (but more impacted by hideous SoCon officiating).  This day was a good example of how 21st-century college football TV choices are different from those in the ’70s and ’80s.  The Citadel hosted Elon at the same time as the all-important Texas-Oklahoma game (that ultimately wasn’t quite important enough for the Longhorns) AND a road game for South Carolina that was televised by Raycom.  Also on TV that day were Georgia-Tennessee and Notre Dame-North Carolina.  The City of Charleston also conspired against the ticket office with its Taste of Charleston weekend (although the main event was held on Sunday).  Total attendance:  12,582, on a Parents’ Day Weekend.  Oof.
  • Georgia Southern played at Johnson Hagood on 11/1, opposite the Coastal Carolina Fair and a host of locally interesting TV games:  Georgia-Florida, Tennessee-South Carolina, and Clemson-Boston College.  11,190 people made it to JHS.  Many of them probably wished Kevin Higgins had gone for two in overtime.
  • Homecoming (on 11/15) was held opposite South Carolina-Florida (on CBS) and Duke-Clemson (on Raycom).  14,213 fans watched The Citadel escape (thanks, Andre) with a win over a wretched UT-Chattanooga squad.

Another thing that wasn’t around in 1978 (or even 1988) is the Charleston Southern football program.  Heck, back then CSU wasn’t even CSU; it was Baptist College.  I’m not sure how much of an effect the Buccaneers’ home games have on Bulldog home games played the same day, to be honest.  They may not have much impact, but every potential ticket not sold counts, in a manner of speaking.  For the record, last season CSU and The Citadel played at home on the same day on 9/27 (CSU attendance:  2,541), 11/1 (3,213), and 11/15 (2,434).

In 2009, incidentally, CSU and The Citadel will again have three home games on the same day, the first three home dates on the Bulldogs’ schedule.  Clemson or South Carolina will play home games on each of The Citadel’s five home dates, although for none of them will both of those schools be at home.  Times for those USC/Clemson games won’t be known until later in the season because of television.  Those TV “windows” also mean that it’s impossible to guess what other national/regional games might have an impact on the schedule (other than Florida-Georgia, which is pencilled in for 3:30 pm on 10/31; The Citadel plays Samford at 1 pm that day).  Also, as far as special local interest events are concerned, this year’s Scottish Games will take place the week before The Citadel’s home opener, much to the relief of the bagpiper groupies.

Compare today’s options for local area sports fans to those of 1978.  South Carolina had no games televised that year.  Clemson had only two regular season games televised (despite an 11-1 season).  If one or both were on the road or playing a rather lame opponent at home, then your choices were usually limited to a sole TV game, often featuring teams of limited interest.  A big football fan might very well be inclined to watch the local team play VMI or Delaware or Marshall (all of which were on the home schedule that year).  He would probably bring his transistor radio along and listen to Bob Fulton or Jim Phillips (or perhaps Larry Munson, which might have been more fun) while watching The Citadel.

I think that’s a big deal.  It’s hard to get the casual fan to the stadium these days.  Now, once you get him to Johnson Hagood (or at least to the tailgating areas), then you stand a decent chance of keeping him.

Anyway, that’s my theory.  The non-affiliated fan who might have been a potential customer/convert twenty and thirty years ago has more sporting options on a gameday Saturday, because of television.  He is probably more inclined to become a fan of an FBS school if he wasn’t already, because it’s easier to follow those teams now even from a distance, because of television.  FCS schools like The Citadel don’t benefit from increased exposure because they simply aren’t on the tube nearly as often as the FBS schools.  They could make up lost ground if they were on at least as often, but they’re not, so they don’t.  It’s a triple whammy.

So, what to do about it?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question.  The Citadel has hard-working, competent people whose very jobs involve trying to improve its numbers at the gate.  They know what they’re doing, and I’m not going to pretend to be as expert as they are on the subject.  Having said that, I have some opinions, some of them of the macro variety, some micro…

Obviously, I think it’s most important to cater to the local “outsider” to bring up the numbers.  At this particular time, though, it also wouldn’t hurt to redouble efforts with the alumni base, which has seen a decade of poor on-field results overseen by a series of coaches, and games played in an aging stadium with facilities that were, frankly, unacceptable.  Out-of-touch alums need to be introduced to the “new” Johnson Hagood Stadium, which is clean, has a cool video board, is wheelchair-accessible and family-friendly, has an electrical system that won’t fail when the french fry machines are turned on, etc.  Plus, the current coach is entering his fifth season.  Stability!

I think it’s important to emphasize what makes going to a football game at The Citadel unique and fun.  The essential uniqueness, of course, is the corps of cadets.  That’s what The Citadel has to offer that other schools don’t.  It is key that the corps be energized for those three hours on a Saturday afternoon or early evening.  I believe the administration needs to make it worth the cadets’ while (weekend/overnight privileges, that type of thing) to be a primary source of entertainment.

The corps needs to be at least semi-organized for providing its special brand of mayhem.  I actually like that the cadets have been moved to the East Stands; it makes them more visible (and, for the visiting team, noisier).  Now it’s time to accentuate their enthusiasm, preferably in as zany a fashion as possible.  All I ask is that “Hey Baby” gets dropped.  Please?

Speaking of music, the band needs to be more incorporated into the scene than it is now.  There needs to be some coordination between promotions and the band in terms of not just when music is played, but what is played.  Note to some alums:  quit asking them to play “Dixie”.  Those days are over.

My other comment about music is that (old fogey alert!) the pre-game rap/hip-hop/heavy metal routine at about 200 decibels is extremely grating and, to me, not in keeping with the general gameday experience at The Citadel.  I know the football players like to get wound up by listening to some of that stuff, but there is too much of it right now.  I’m not asking for the current mix to be replaced by Frank Sinatra tunes (although that would cool in a retro-hip way), but there needs to be a little balance.  Also, I can go to any game and listen to somebody abuse the sound system while playing the latest in headbanging drivel.  Games at The Citadel need to be (and should be) different.

In keeping with trying to impress potential new fans, it never hurts to accentuate the military aspects of the gameday experience.  Pre-game flyovers are always good.  Guys parachuting in with the game ball, halftime shows featuring various specialty outfits (military marching bands or drill units) — those things tend to go over well.

That reminds me — what happened to the Touchdown Cannon Crew?  Now there just seems to be a Touchdown Cannon Dude.  Where are the riflemen?  There is probably a story behind their absence.  One thing this brings to mind is that, whenever possible, it’s nice to keep some continuity in the school’s gameday traditions.  The Citadel is big on tradition, although you would never know it by looking at its football uniform history.

Another thing to emphasize when trying to recruit new fans is the affordability aspect of going to games at Johnson Hagood.  In the current economy, in particular, this has to be a plus.

If you want to have decent seats at South Carolina games, for example, you have to give a lot of money to the Gamecock Club just to have the option of buying season tickets.  Then you have to pay a “premium” on those same seats.  Then after finally getting to buy the tickets the sucker customer needs to buy an expensive parking pass just to be able to park near Williams-Brice Stadium.  When you include travel costs, concessions, etc., soon (to paraphrase Everett Dirksen) you’re talking about real money.  All that for USC games, and we’re not talking about the USC that wins Rose Bowls, but the USC that has never played in a major bowl.  38-35!  Enough said.

Another thing to emphasize, or improve, is to make the games “kid-friendly”.  There are plenty of kids at games, but there needs to be a lot more.  Ticket promotions, giveaways with children in mind, the whole nine yards.  Some of this is already happening, which is good.  Another idea would be to have a specific organization just for youngsters — the Junior Bulldog Club, say.  Members could get perks, like being able to go out onto the field with the players before the game for the coin toss or some other type of ceremony, not unlike what you see at international and domestic European soccer matches.  After all, indoctrination should occur early in life.

Speaking of kid-friendly, one of the best things The Citadel has done in recent years is re-establish the live mascot program.  General and his good buddy Boo are kid magnets, as is their cartoon friend Spike.  I’ve actually heard a few gnarly old codgers grumble about Spike (some of the gnarliest codgers aren’t that old, either).  Those people are morons.  Mascots, in general, aren’t really meant to entertain somebody who is busy trying to figure out where he put his flask.  They’re largely there to keep children entertained while their father is screaming at the coach for running the ball on third-and-ten.  Just keep that in mind.

Finally, I have to say something about the cheerleading program.  Larry Leckonby needs to take a hard look at that issue and make some decisions.  It’s a part of the gameday experience that is currently a complete disaster.  Whether we outfit the cheerleaders in camo and go the gung-ho route, or revert to the days of importing them from other schools (probably not feasible), or simply not have cheerleaders at all, something needs to be done.  The current situation is not good at all.  The lack of enthusiasm for the program from the corps of cadets (and from the cheerleaders themselves) is disturbing.

In conclusion, I do think attendance should improve this season, barring something unusual happening.  The home schedule is much more interesting, with games against instate schools Presbyterian, Furman, and Wofford, along with a visit from Appalachian State.  The best way of increasing attendance going forward, of course, was best expressed by former Bulldog assistant coach Al Davis:  “Just win, baby.”  Since you can’t always count on wins, though, you have to do all the “little things” to try to fill a stadium.  Here is hoping that Johnson Hagood will be packed with fans this season and beyond.

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