I've been seeing a lot of chatter about the attendance at the last couple of football games, and I thought it would make sense to talk a little bit about why the attendance is so mediocre and what can be done about it.
I think the attendance woes can be attributed to a few factors - 1) the team's generally awful past decade, 2) lack of local sports coverage, 3) gameday atmosphere and 4) marketing...
Follow me down the rabbit hole as we explore what's going on.
1) The Buddy Teevens/Walt Harris years - I don't think it is possible to underestimate just how devastating these years were to the program in terms of building up a fanbase. When I was at Stanford (late 90's early 00's) the team was relevant and games were an event. I still see people from my time at the school at games to this day. The team routinely drew enough people in the old stadium to fill the new one. However, I can't imagine that the same passion would've been stirred up by the hopeless teams that followed that time - I honestly can't blame the students one bit... I know my own interest waned significantly in that time, and I didn't have the distractions all around me like a student would.
Unfortunately, that means six years of alums who have less of an interest in the team. Some people from those years are definitely into the team now, but I believe the damage has been done. To top it off, those were the years that social media started taking off and those students were most likely to be using it. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to talk about. Heck, look at how long it took for SB Nation to find someone willing to run a Stanford blog?!?! (so glad this is here now though...)
2) Sports coverage - local papers (the Chronicle/Merc) are waking up to the team now because there is no way to avoid it when they are this good. Unfortunately, Stanford has played second fiddle locally for quite some time. We have the same problems as the Oakland A's in this area. In fact, we have the same radio carrier, which is NOT a good thing if you want to reach a large audience. The Chronicle has had someone dedicated to covering Cal this whole time, but no dedicated person for Stanford, and it shows... Jon Wilner has done a good job for the Mercury news, but he is tasked with covering the whole college scene. I go to Ted Miller's ESPN blog for Stanford news far more than I go to our local media outlets.. and that just seems strange (even if Ted's blog is excellent).
3) Gameday atmosphere - this is the biggie. Once someone goes to a game, there needs to be something to get the person to return. I believe the gameday atmosphere leaves much to be desired. It is great in the lower deck, especially in the corner where the students sit. Unfortunately, that is only a small portion of the stadium. By contrast, the upper deck is pretty sad.
There's a lot going on here, so let's look at the different issues...
Upper deck - I don't know if it is by design, but sound really doesn't appear to carry to the upper deck of the stadium. The students can be yelling as loud as they want, with the band playing as well, and it just doesn't carry, especially in the end zones. It takes a lot of effort to get a good "buzz" going around the whole stadium - when it is there it is awesome, and the single best reason to come back. Unfortunately, it is almost never there. This is in part due to:
Not involving everyone - in my years at Stanford we had the yell leaders. The yell leaders would attempt to get everyone in the stadium involved in cheering for the team, not just the student section. Now, the cheerleaders (based on what I can see) just don't do much. They certainly don't try to get people on the other side of the stadium to cheer. Get those people involved in the game! Sure, they should be able to do it for themselves... but there are a lot of older and younger folks in those stands that need a bit of encouragement. As an aside, it couldn't hurt bring back some of the cheers of old... You've never lived to you've heard a whole stadium chanting "Penetrate! Penetrate! Score! Score!"
The band - is the band having a difficult time recruiting members or does the athletic department limit how many people they can bring? They are a unique part of the game experience, but they are way too small in number to really be effective (we can barely hear them in the upper deck). Heck, opposing schools' travel bands are larger than the Stanford home one! How is that possible? The band can and should be a big part of the game experience, but outside of the halftime show, they are just not loud enough to really be a presence.
The students - from what I can see/hear, the students this year have been awesome. Why are they shoehorned into a corner? They are the only ones that instill any sense of atmosphere in the game... why not shift them over at least one section closer to the middle, so their energy can impact even more people within the stadium?
I think the single biggest selling point of a college athletic event is the atmosphere. There is nothing in pro sports that can compare to the atmosphere of a college game when the crowd is fully engaged. People should be leaving the stadium after the game thinking, "Wow, I had a blast!" The current atmosphere in the stadium isn't conducive to that kind of a reaction, and it really needs to be addressed.
4) Marketing - it has been said before, but the athletic department's marketing of the team in the past has been abysmal. I don't know enough to talk intelligently about details here, but I do know that it has felt pretty amateurish in the past. I think it is a bit better this year, but they really need to work not just on getting the word out, but doing so in a way that gets people interested in going to a game.
So, what do I think needs to be done? For one, the athletic department should reach out to local news outlets more (or maybe start cultivating the blogger culture if they think that would be more effective). They really, really need to work on the atmosphere in the stadium, especially in the upper deck, and it wouldn't hurt to step up the efforts on marketing the team.
Unfortunately, I think the biggest thing that is needed is time. Every year of success adds to the pool of fans that can go to the game. The team was so bad for so long however that I think it will take several more years of success before the fan base can recover. Unfortunately, I think we'll lose Harbaugh long before that happens... and then... who knows?