Deserved or not, the Big Ten isn’t a conference known for its skill in changing directions. Whether it’s a defensive player or just how the league conducts its business, Big Ten football is viewed unit that is perfectly happy to remain stuck in its ways and has no interest in changing, thank you very much.
No one is more aware of that than the conference’s own athletic directors. While the group can’t do anything to change what’s happening on the field, they can fight another demon that has recently started plaguing the league – getting modern fan bases to actually attend games.
Dealing with student bodies that won’t attend games if something as simple yet vexing as rainy weather shutting down text-message capabilities and equipping antiquated stadiums for wireless and video capabilities are common demons shared across the conference. In a league with seven stadiums of greater than 70,000, Big Ten athletic directors devoted time at their recent league meetings to fight this enemy together.
“Part of that is to make the league be perceived in reality what it is, and that’s a little bit more hip, a little bit more cool,” Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told ESPN.com. “I have three kids that are age 14, 18 and 20, and they’re a great resource for me to bounce ideas off from a Michigan State perspective. But I think we need to take that as a league a little bit as well.
It’s not your grandfather’s conference any more. There’s so much greatness and so much tradition that needs to be continued and talked about, but also try to add a little unique freshness that’s unique to young kids.”
The anecdote above about students no-showing games because they can’t text wasn’t hyperbole, either. As Hollis said, “One of our biggest no-show rates in football was the Iowa game,” Hollis said. “And I’d go out and walk the streets and start talking to kids, ‘Why didn’t you go?’ And they said, ‘We couldn’t text because it was raining.’ They couldn’t have their phones out. That kind of hit me pretty hard.”
So, how do you ask a fan to give up a Satuday on the couch in front of the flat screen to buy a ticket and take in the game live? Better video screens, reliable Wi-Fi, more accessible concession stands, better restrooms. More night games wouldn’t hurt, but if you have to play a noon kickoff, Brady Hoke’s idea of free donuts for students is a good start.
On top of that, offer fans an experience they can’t get at home. Like a four-hour football extravaganza with 70,000 of their closest friends.
“More highlights, more scores, more fun, coloring outside the lines a little bit,” Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. “We’ll play to our strengths — the band, the cheerleaders, the pageantry of college football, flags and color, engagement of students — and spent a lot of time really trying to enhance that. That’s not only a great thing for our fan experience, it translates into the cool factor for recruits who come in.”