The Attendance Problem: Why College Students Aren’t Going to Games

Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

It's something that has been discussed a lot recently, and has been on my mind. I want to give you an alternate theory.

There's been a lot of discussion in the past few years concerning student attendance at college athletics events, and football games in particular. This goes far beyond Georgia Tech, too - the problems have surfaced most famously at UGA, Arizona, and even the mighty Alabama. At these and most other programs around the country, there's a growing issue with students showing up to games late, leaving early, and/or just not showing up at all. It doesn't make sense to people. How is it that the most popular game in the country can offer people with the closest ties to the on-field action premium seats at a low cost, and yet they pass up the opportunity to go?

Note: Many of the theories being presented in the next paragraph are drawn from this article on ESPN.com.

Some have suggested that the issue is with the availability of other games to watch. Maybe I'm unique, but I'd take a live game over a game on TV any day. Others have suggested that it's influenced by the inability to effectively use their phones in the stadium (due to overload on the networks). As someone who just spent the last 5 football seasons in college, I have a really, REALLY hard time imagining someone saying, "I mean, I COULD go to this neat live event with all of my friends...but then how on Earth would I send Snapchats?" Perhaps the most reasonable explanation I've heard, believe it or not, comes from the Red and Black (the UGA student newspaper) - they suggested that the in-stadium atmosphere is being overly dictated by those with the money (read: old people who want you to sit your ass down and be quiet so they can see this crucial third down play). It's perhaps the most valid theory I've heard so far, but I have a hard time believing the boosters at other schools really have much effect on what happens in the student section. Even at a school with rich history like Georgia Tech, is anything really dictated by old folks? (Not sure I'd believe there's some rich 70-year old guy at the games telling the band to play "Put On" by Young Jeezy, or whose wife directing them to blast "All the Way Turnt Up" by Roscoe Dash when the crowd needs to get loud.)

No, I disagree with all of these theories for one reason or another, and I'd like to propose my own.

I want you to look at the generation we're discussing, and compare them to generations past. (I wasn't there as generations past grew up, so this theory could be complete garbage, but I'm working off of what I understand of them.) As my dad grew up in Louisville, KY, when he got bored, he went to the park to play baseball with his friends. In high school, he played offensive line and wrestled in his spare time. In college, he joined a fraternity and partook in intramural sports, went to Western Kentucky athletic events, and cheered on "America's Team", the Dallas Cowboys. After graduation, he went to half a dozen Final Fours, even when his beloved Louisville Cardinals weren't playing. Sports were the main channel he had of entertaining himself, whether he was playing or not. Now, he goes to every Georgia Tech home football game - not because he's an alumnus, but because he's got kids who go/went there and he enjoys going to football games on afternoons in the fall.

I want you to compare that upbringing to the upbringing of those in my generation (no, I'm not excluding myself from this). We're in the age where technology has exploded. I got a SEGA Genesis for Christmas when I was 5 years old, and only 6 years later I upgraded that now-ancient gaming system to the original Microsoft Xbox. (It was about that time that a bunch of my friends around the neighborhood did, too.) It was also throughout this time that the internet was booming - suddenly there was this brand new portal for information and entertainment where there was never anything comparable before. Yes, my generation is the one that grew up with Xboxes, the internet, 5 times as many TV channels, and generally a million more reasons than our parents had to stay inside and find something else to entertain us.

And, heck it's not even a matter of not going out and playing sports being the problem, but more that there was this brand new avenue of entertaining oneself, removing any incentive from finding a way to become interested in sports. In college, I always found it wildly disturbing how many people (very social people, I should add) would rather sit in their rooms and play Assassin's Creed or Battlefield all day rather than go watch Georgia Tech play a game against a major opponent like Pittsburgh or North Carolina. (Clemson, Virginia Tech, and UGA were much easier to get attendance at without peer pressure - otherwise, a lot of folks showing up were doing so because they were "supposed to", and doing so late before leaving at the start of the fourth quarter.) People have developed their entire social circles around others who like to play video games and partake in other entertainment via the internet, and it ends up that those things interest these individuals far more than watching folks do activities that they themselves never did or were never any good at. The sample at Georgia Tech may be somewhat skewed towards this type, but when you're having the same issues at Alabama and UGA and even over in Arizona (all top-10 schools socially, by the way), I'd have to think that this isn't something specific to the Institute.

I have a lot of problems with my generation. I think we've been ruined by a lot more than video games. (Don't get me started on participation trophies.) But in the context of why students aren't showing up, I've got an idea - they're not interested. Sure, level of competition might have something to do with it, but I really don't think that's the root issue.

The issue is that you're dealing with a generation of people who aren't interested in sports nearly as much as those before them, because unlike their parents, they don't have to be interested in sports to survive socially or entertain themselves. It's a group of people who have found much simpler channels of entertainment - a lowest common denominator, if you will. I know guys who would be equivalent to a human sacrifice if given the ball on a football field, but who can work the sticks on an Xbox controller better than I ever will be able to, or who have found other ways of entertaining themselves online that weren't available 30 years ago. Is it really a wonder why they pick the Xbox over the football game?

My point is, this isn't an issue you're going to fix by scheduling games later in the day or allowing hit music to be played over the stadium's speakers in between plays. In fact, this isn't an issue you're going to solve at all. This issue is going to be there for as long as video games and the internet are there for people looking for an alternate form of entertainment - and, newsflash, the NFL will be disbanded for safety reasons long before the internet or video games meet their demise. The fact is, this is an issue that may never get better, and likely will continue to get worse as technology is furthered and new forms of entertainment are developed.

So, if you're an AD looking for kids to come to games, you'd better start getting a lot more creative if you don't want to problem to get worse.

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