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The Future Of Football Stadiums Is Here; How Long Before An SEC School Follows Suit?

49ers-stadiumThe Southeastern Conference is the leader in terms of college football attendance in America.  That’s not likely to change anytime soon because the SEC boasts the biggest stadiums in the nation as well.  More seats, more rumps to fill them.

But leading the country in attendance ain’t what it used to be.  Last season, nine of the SEC’s 14 schools saw a decline in game attendance.  That trend can be blamed on many things — price of tickets and parking, lack of Wi-Fi and cell coverage in stadiums, high-definition TVs, more games on television than ever before, etc, etc.

The SEC announced in May that it had taken notice and created the “Working Group on Fan Experience.”  That team of SEC administrators found that cell and Wi-Fi service needed to be upgraded at each stadium (at a cost of about $2 million per).  They decided more replays were needed inside stadium.  Student attendance would have to be improved.  The quality of games was also a topic of discussion (which gets back to our old push for a nine-game conference slate).

All that is well and good, but at some point an SEC school is going to take the big dollar approach.  Instead of trying to appeal to the average Joes — who in many cases have already been priced right out of games — some school will eventually just go ahead and target the uber-rich.  The country club approach already exists in the pro ranks.

Most NFL stadiums seat fewer than 70,000 fans.  Yet those buildings boast more club seats and luxury suites than the typical college venues.  If you can’t get the little fish anymore, make sure you land the whales.

In Santa Clara — where the San Francisco 49ers will soon be moving — the new stadium under construction is at the forefront of technology, too.  In addition to massive boxes and suites for the wealthy, the 49ers new home is being built with the 21st century sports fan in mind:

 

Welcome to the Most Tech-Savvy Stadium in America

 

How long before an SEC school decides to replace 10,000 to 20,000 seats with larger, more opulent skyboxes?  How long before a school goes all-in with technology, as the 49ers are doing?

Our guess… give it 10 years and someone will have tried it.

If going to a game once again becomes a status symbol, an exclusive “thing to do,” it will drive up demand for tickets and put more money in schools’ coffers long-term.  Sounds good.  And it’s just a question of when, not if.

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SEC Gets Proactive With Attendance Issues… But It May Not Matter

guy-with-clipboardIf you’re the Southeastern Conference and you’re about to come into a hefty chunk of newfound cash, how would you spend it?  Well, if you’re smart, you’d invest some of that cash back into the product.

Turns out, that’s exactly what the SEC plans to do with some of its new television, playoff, and bowl money.

While the SEC continues to lead the nation in college football attendance, there’s no denying the fact that attendance is dropping across the conference.  For four straight years the SEC’s average attendance has fallen.  In response, the SEC has created what it’s calling the “Working Group on Fan Experience.”

The group plans to tackle issues involving the in-stadium experience.  That means showing more in-game replays (the league began doing so last year), improving cell phone and Wi-Fi coverage in and around stadiums, and finding ways to lure students back into SEC stadiums.

According to a report by CBSSports.com’s Tony Barnhart, the secondary ticket market (StubHub, for example) and the quality of games on teams’ schedules will also be hot topics for the SEC’s special panel.  Some of the topics will also involve pricey solutions.

The cost of improving Wi-Fi, for example, will run about $2 million per stadium.  “Our next generation of fans is used to staying connected,” Tennessee AD Dave Hart told Barnhart.  “They should be able to communicate in real time with somebody on the other side of the stadium.  It’s quite an investment but we have to make it.”

The most direct route to improved attendance is a strengthened home schedule, of course.  Florida AD Jeremy Foley said: “There once was a day when every single seat for every single game would be full.  But those days are gone.  If it’s a big SEC Game we don’t have a problem.  But if it’s not a big game we are concerned.”

Ironically, the chairman of the SEC’s new task force is Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin, a man who’s been against going to a nine-game conference schedule.  While his Bulldogs will play Oklahoma State this season in Houston — kudos — he has in the past stated that some programs — meaning his — need to schedule plenty of lesser opponents during the rebuilding process.  That kind of thinking won’t help SEC schools at the turnstile.

While Stricklin recognizes the problem, it’s likely he’ll focus on in-game experience issues rather than the obvious solution — better games.

“What is the real attitude of our fan base?” he asked Barnhart.  “We know about all these issues, but what are the real world solutions?  Soft attendance is something we’ve been dealing with a few years.  We have to get a handle on this now.”

One suggestion that we at MrSEC.com would make — and we’ve made it before — is that schools should refurbish their stadiums and decrease the number of seats in the process.  The average fan is being priced out of most games anyway.  High-definition television at home has become a good alternative to fighting traffic and spending money to see a team beat up on an FCS foe.

To combat that, successful programs could actually decrease seating capacity, create in-game experiences that can’t be found at home (“impact seating,” really good food, sports bars, in-game apps that can only be used inside stadiums, etc) and increase ticket price.  If a stadium can’t be filled up, cut down on seating and make the seats that are available more valuable.

Some schools are already removing bench and chair-back seating to make room for new lounge and club boxes.  Expect that trend to continue moving forward.

While the best fix for declining attendance is better scheduling, the SEC deserves credit for at least attempting to study this problem and find solutions for it.  Whether the league will be successful in its quest is anyone’s guess.

It’s possible, after all, that tomorrow’s sports fans — kids who’ve grown up inside their own bubbles staring into smartphone screens — won’t have the same desire as their grandpaps to fight crowds and attend events in person.  We’re talking about a generation that’s become accustomed to watching movies and sporting events on tiny handheld screens.  If the next generation of fans finds that kind of “experience” satisfactory, the SEC may have to work miracles if it wants to draw those people to an expensive, packed stadium on a Saturday afternoon.

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