I don’t have data to back up this assertion, so I’m sure it will fall on deaf ears in some quarters. Gotta have digits to support any analog opinion these days, right?
But when I heard the recent NCAA figures acknowledging another drop in FBS college football attendance, nobody really had any big ideas for a reason. So, here’s mine:
College-age kids simply are not as devoted to any leisure activity as they used to be because they are overloaded with such stimulus all the time through smartphones. And it’s not like marketers concentrating on bigger fish are devoting much effort to get their attention.
Simplistic explanation for the biggest annual percentage drop in 34 years? Maybe. But it’s not a secret that technology is changing our habits and feeding new ones.
And my own anecdotal observation is that today’s young adults, of whom my son is one (a college freshman), have a difficult time getting truly excited about anything of leisure interest simply because they’ve been bombarded with little bits of leisure-time input pretty much their whole lives. They are the first generation raised with smartphones. And their lives are dominated by looking down, not looking out and around.
The downward trend in college football attendance jibes with the rise of smartphone technology in the last decade. They are almost perfectly diametrically opposed, both beginning in earnest in the late ’00s.
If you’re a college kid, making the decision to attend an athletic event at your school requires intense interest. It mandates involvement. It needs a total buy-in. Otherwise, why bother?
But administrators at many schools have raised student ticket prices precipitously. They don’t allow students to drink alcohol (many times while allowing it for those in the luxury suites). They are poisoning the collegiate atmosphere with nonstop pitching for this sponsor and that. It’s hard to get a connection on smartphones in stadiums. The games commonly drag on 3 1/2 hours with replays and long delays for TV ads.
The general undercurrent is that the student fans, many of them already wracked with tuition debt, have been taken for granted.
When I asked my son why he thought game attendance is down, the only reasons he could come up with are that lots of kids would just as soon hang out at the tailgate and watch the game on TVs or phones when not socializing. They can drink out there. They don’t have to pay to get inside.
But I think it runs deeper than that. The curtain has been so blatantly pulled back on the marketing machine in the last decade or so. It’s not really directed at them. And students just don’t have the passion to devote to a wholly fabricated cause of which they don’t seem to be invited anyway.
It’s worth noting that Penn State is not a part of this trend, clearly for reasons that transcend social ones — PSU’s football team got a lot more interesting in the last couple of years so everyone got more excited.
But it’s pretty clear from looking at student sections across the country that they are the ones most responsible for the national downturn and this is scaring the crap out of the suits who run college athletics. Because the administrators know if students don’t attend the games now, they’ll be less likely to donate later when they’re at prime earning age.
But I’m not sure there’s anything middle-aged marketers can do about it at this point. They grew up in an era when attention, at least outside the home, was necessarily devoted to flesh-and-blood reality and not screens.
That’s not true anymore. And they aren’t part of the revolution.