Northwestern Football: Pat Fitzgerald misses mark on young fans’ attendance

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald’s recent words on the state of youth today ignore the significant obstacles to attending games.

Pat Fitzgerald’s recent remarks regarding the lack of youth attendance at college football games have ironically made the rounds on Twitter and social media.

The irony lies in his comments, decrying about the social interactions and life experiences of youth that are rapidly diminishing in front of their smart phone screens, that have become available widespread for millions of people in the span of seconds.

During Big Ten Media Days, Fitzgerald was asked about the problems of declining attendance for college football.

“I think phones and technology have been the decline in attendance, number one,” Fitzgerald said. To describe how “young people” live today, Fitzgerald demonstrated someone staring down, neck bent, in contrast to someone looking up with eyes wide open.

Fitzgerald’s advice for those who rely on videos and pictures of an event? Instead, “take it in, create a memory,” he said.

“I think the fans who grew up going to the games and tailgating, the fans who grew up going to the stadiums four hours before the games, are getting a little older,” Fitzgerald said. “I think the younger generation of fans [is] more reliant on technology. They’d rather have 12 TVs set up in their TV-watching cave than go to a game and experience the pageantry and the tailgating. I think it’s definitely things we need to look at as a brand, [as] college football…”

FBS games averaged 41,509 fans per home game in 2018, according to the NCAA. 10 years ago, that figure was 45,545, a decrease of almost 9 percent.

Personally, there’s nothing more I love than showing up four hours before a college football game, walking around, grilling food, having a couple cold ones, and sauntering into the stadium to see the bands warming up. Then, of course, the game itself.

But there’s a cost to that.

First, the cost of time: it’s tough to spend an entire Saturday driving to a stadium, parking, and attending the game itself. Youth fall sports (in increasing numbers), family obligations, and other events are difficult to conduct in tandem with college football: just look at the number of weddings in Alabama during Crimson Tide/Tiger bye weekends, for example.

Second, the monetary cost: a quick search for Northwestern football tickets for the season opener against Stanford reveals part of the problem. The cheapest available seats, in row X in the upper-deck corner, are $26 apiece. I have to purchase two at once, and tack on some fees, my check-out price is $62.02. Add in parking, which is generally only available for season-ticket holders, and if you’re planning on eating or drinking anything in a span of 6-10 hours, and you’re easily looking at upwards of $100 for a couple to attend a football game in the nosebleeds. Pack your binoculars and, if you’re in Chicago, wear a windbreaker.

Compare that to the warm, cozy man-cave with a tablet, phone, laptop, and/or TV streaming. Maybe all at once on different games, if that’s your style.

On a semi-related note: Northwestern paid Fitzgerald $5.1 million in total compensation in 2017, according to USA Today. He recently signed a contract extension that goes through 2026.

A large part of Fitzgerald’s (and that of other big-time college football coaches) cash earnings are a direct result of TV deals that conferences sign. The Big Ten, for instance, is in the midst of a $2.64 billion media-rights deal with FOX and ESPN, good for $440 million annually to be split by its members. Of course, streaming games on apps is a large part of this.

And, perhaps most importantly, these media rights deals pander to a national TV audience that wants to stream its games on multiple days/nights per week. My father doesn’t want to watch the OU Sooners pummel the Little Sisters of the Poor at 11:00 a.m. CT every Saturday (an early start to the weekend, no?).

Personally, I can’t justify going to an 8:30 p.m. Wednesday night showdown between South Alabama and Troy on ESPN2 because I work, have a wife/baby/dog, etc.

The world we live in today grants more access than ever before to college football. It’s no longer a world of three channels (a selected national game and Notre Dame, right?) with the turning knobs on the tube. And while the lack of social, in-person interactions among young people is a serious problem, smart phones are part of the success of monetizing college football. The same technology that Fitzgerald and others decry provides some serious benefits to coaches in his position.

The real question should not be: “Why are fewer fans attending college football games today?” Instead, we should ask, “Is the declining college football attendance an actual problem?”

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College football coaches’ paychecks don’t seem to be too troubled.