Eyeballs And Butts


Robert
Jul 21, 2022
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48 Comments

There's really only one fan currency: showing up. It's the American Dollar of the college sports landscape. Sure, eyeballs are important, but butts are more important. Butts make the college sports world go 'round.

I know it's silly to say that just after the Big Ten added USC and UCLA simply for the (television) eyeballs. The financial end of college sports is all about eyeballs. The Big Ten and SEC can bring millions more eyeballs to television screens than the Big 12, ACC, or Pac 12 (er, Pac 10). It's just the reality.

Eyeballs really don't even need to make sense. Eyeballs are the reason According To Jim was on for eight seasons and Freaks & Geeks was canceled after one. Eyeballs don't have anything to do with the quality of the product - eyeballs are just eyeballs, and for college football, they're mostly based on history and geography. Get the eyeballs, get the money.

I'm not here to talk about eyeballs. I'm here to talk about butts.

I've made this point before. Universities recruit to the level of their stadium capacity. Here's the 15 largest college stadiums in order: Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Nebraska, Clemson, Wisconsin, Oklahoma. You say chicken but I say egg. The history brought the wins and the wins brought the fanbase and the fanbase can provide the momentum for more wins. Programs with smaller stadiums have tried to break through in recent years (Oregon from their 54,000 seat stadium, Oklahoma State and their 55,500), but really, college football continues to (and will forever) revolve around the programs with the most butts in seats. Nebraska and Tennessee (and, yes, Texas) will eventually return because of butts.

I should probably be careful. I'm flippantly playing around with the eyeballs and butts thing and you might miss my point. I'm not here to discuss the current financial landscape or how TV drives the bus. Nor am I here to discuss how college football attendance has fallen off significantly as people watch the game in their garage with friends on an 80" flatscreen. All of that is Josh Whitman's concern - the fear of college football and basketball being no more than a production on a sound stage in these post-Covid times. I'm talking about my concern - the fan's concern.

Our lack of butts.

We really lack butts right now. There are #reasons, and there are people to blame for those reasons, but the reality is that our butts have been dwindling for 25+ years. I know, you have your "well if Ron Guenther would have..." and your "if Lovie Smith had cared about recruiting then I would have cared about..." prepared. I'm asking you to holster those for 10 minutes and read what I'm saying. Then you can fire away.

Let's get very specific about football attendance. College football drives everything (have you heard?), and the topic of TV revenue has been discussed a lot these last few weeks, but I want to talk about home attendance. And I should probably start with another disclaimer.

(Me: "I should start with another disclaimer." You: "We haven't even 'started' yet?")

Because of all the discussion about TV money and the Big Ten splitting the pie equally, there's this financial reality of "as long as Ohio State is bringing in the eyeballs, attendance in Memorial Stadium really doesn't matter." Financially, that's mostly true. As I'm sure you've read a dozen times over the last month, college football is a TV show now. According To Jim(bo Fisher).

But while it might not matter financially (it does, and ticket sales drive program growth, but it doesn't matter as much ~financially~ as the Big Ten TV contracts), it does matter in terms of, you know, winning football games. I'm not just talking home game atmosphere. I'm talking program momentum (and recruiting). I'm talking Rutgers - RUTGERS - building momentum that I'm hoping Illinois can match.

Rutgers hires Greg Schiano. It's a big homecoming celebration because Schiano was their most successful coach of the last 40 years. I'd say it was a very similar reception to the Bret Bielema hire at Illinois. He says all the right things about in-state kids playing for the in-state school and the fanbase is mostly bought in.

Rutgers then goes 3-6 in Schianio's first season (2020) but it's seen as a huge step forward from Chris Ash. They're competitive. They take Michigan to overtime (but lose). They win on the road at Michigan State and Purdue. They're only 3-6 in that Covid-shortened season, but there's real, palpable momentum.

That turns into ticket sales. For Schiano's second season, Rutgers fans are back in. In fact, they lead the nation in attendance bump (from 2019 to 2021 - 2020 is ignored, obviously). Here's a chart from ADU that shows the Rutgers bump:

From 30,082 fans per game in 2019 to 44,630 fans in 2021, all based on going 3-6 and keeping things close in 2020.

And that turned up in recruiting momentum as well. Schiano turned that into five 4-stars and the 33rd-ranked class on the 247 Composite (despite being only 20 commits). Average player ranking: 87.34, so basically on the same tier as Wisconsin (87.66) and Michigan State (87.64). Up big from Schiano's first full class in 2021 (85.70). Absolute recruiting momentum.

Let's look at Illinois ticket sales. First, a quick acknowledgement that ticket sales were down 6.5% nationwide last year post-Covid (or maybe I should say mid-Covid). That's part of an overall trend - ticket sales dropped between one and three percent over the last five years. But we should at start by saying that this drop in Champaign was exacerbated by Covid. For the Big Ten, just to give you an overall picture, the average attendance in 2019 was 65,065 and the average attendance in 2021 was 64,785.

That said, we're still in an attendance free fall. Again, please hold your IF THE NACHOS WERE BETTER I WOULD BE THERE until I'm finished and just read through these numbers with me. Here's the drop in Big Ten attendance from 2016 to 2021:

2016: 66,151
2017: 66,227
2018: 65.376
2019: 65,065
2021: 64,785

And here's the Illinois attendance those five seasons:

2016: 45,644
2017: 39,429
2018: 36,151
2019: 36,587
2021: 35,347

I'd like to take a moment here and shout-out the last 370 people who bought tickets for the Rutgers game after we beat Penn State (I don't think anyone bought tickets the week of the Northwestern game, although you should have). Yes, we lost to Rutgers, but those final 370 tickets sold meant that we finished at an average of 35,347 for the year. And that was very important because the floor we were trying to avoid was the 1962 average attendance of 35,295. Had our 35,347 fallen by 53 fans per game and ended up at 35,294, I would have had to say it out loud: the 2021 season would have been our lowest average attendance in Memorial Stadium since 1945.

That's the absolute truth, by the way. Since World War II, here are the three lowest-attended Illini football seasons:

2021: 35,347
1962: 35,295
1945: 24,011

(The fans in 1945 had a tiny little excuse as to why they didn't show up. Hint: the season started a few weeks after V-J Day.)

So we've reached the absolute floor. Rutgers also reached a floor when Chris Ash was there, but then they jumped from 30,082 to 44,630 last year (all based on that 3-6 season and perceived program momentum).

We have perceived program momentum, right? Rutgers made that jump after a season where they went 3-6 (and during a season where they went 5-7, so it's not like they were 9-0 and selling the place out for the final few games). We just went 5-7, won four Big Ten games for only the 4th time in the last 20 years, and we beat two ranked teams on the road. Will we be getting a 48.4% attendance bump? Are we expecting 52,454 people per game in Memorial Stadium this fall?

I don't get the sense that we're headed that way. We would have seen several press releases if that was the case. Rutgers was touting the increase in their season ticket sales last year. I'm assuming that we would see the same if we were seeing the same. My sense is that sales are simply... about the same.

(One note about Rutgers before we move on. These numbers are always a bit screwy. Some schools count tickets they give away. Some schools will invite 10 high school bands to play a halftime show and count ever band member as part of the attendance even though they play and leave. I'm sure there's some fun stuff going on with Rutgers. Still, turn on a game last year and compare it to 2019 and... the crowd is night-and-day better.)

Now we can get to your reasons. Go ahead, let it all out. Yell loud enough so I can hear you and I'll write them all down on a list right here.

  • "Lovie didn't care so I don't care. I'll come back once I see wins."
  • "Have you seen the ticket prices? Who wants to pay that much to go to a game?"
  • "I need three consecutive winning seasons before I even begin to think about going to games again."
  • "No Chief No Check."
  • "You want me to get season tickets when they schedule one of the games on a Thursday night?"
  • "Winning seasons in the last 30 years: 1994, 1999, 2001, 2007, 2010, and 2011. This team will never win and I'll never go."
  • "Robert, how many times have you personally asked me to buy in? What would it look like if I did that the first time you asked 12 years ago? Do you know how much money I would have wasted?"

I don't really have a response to any of these. You're mostly right. The "No Chief No Check" thing seems like it has run it's course by now (it's just not gonna happen, man) but everything else is very difficult to counter. If "win consistently for 5-8 seasons and I'll attend" is your bar, I don't know if we'll clear the bar in my lifetime.

But I am surprised that last season didn't move you off of any of those positions. Even the harshest critic had to move a little, right? Competence on the field. Close games throughout the entire Big Ten season. Two ranked road wins. Big blowout at the end. If I could have mapped out the eight months after the Northwestern win, I would have guessed that there would be fanbase momentum, "season ticket sales up 21%" tweets, and a corresponding "Gabbo Gabbo Gabbo!" buzz around town. And I just haven't seen that.

My guess as to why: we're a fanbase still frightened to use our butts. Lou Tepper inherited an awakened giant and four years later we lose 18 in a row. Ron Turner built it all the way back up to a Big Ten title and a BCS bowl but then went 1-11 two years later. Zook got to the Rose Bowl and then went 21-28. Beckman got to a bowl in year three but was then fired mid-scandal (with a program that seemed to be going nowhere). And perhaps worst of all, Lovie got you to buy in (and buy tickets for the 2016 North Carolina game) only to watch Mitch Trubisky destroy us (and then watch Lovie go 17-39). Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me five times...

So I get it. But there's always that little part of me that doesn't get it, you know? Why aren't we at least Iowa State?

Iowa State was mostly in the same spot we were in the mid-90's. Jim Walden went 3-8 and then 0-10-1 in his final two seasons and Dan McCarney took over a very similar program to Ron Turner. In McCarney's 11 seasons, he did have four 7-win seasons and a 9-win season (the other six seasons were losing seasons). After going 4-8 in 2006, McCarney was out and Gene Chizik was in. And Iowa State's average attendance had dipped to a low of 41,729 in 2004.

Chizik only had two years before Auburn hired him (and both years failed - 3-9 and 2-10), so they turned to Paul Rhodes. He went 7-6 and 5-7 in his first two years and the fans came storming back. After Rhodes went 5-7 in 2010 with a lot of players coming back, attendance increased from 45,395 per game in 2010 to 53,647 in 2011. They'd go 6-7 that season, and Rhodes would never again have a winning season (his only winning season was 2009 and he was fired in 2015) but attendance stayed right around 55,000 per game.

Then Matt Campbell takes over, goes 3-9 the first year, but with the fanbase behind the new young coach and recruiting moving in the right direction, his second year is the highest average attendance in the history of Jack Trice Stadium - 57,931. For a 7-5 team that was 3-9 the year before.

So if Iowa State football and Illinois football were mirror images of each other from 1995 through 2015 (Iowa State wins from 1995 to 2015: 93; Illinois wins from 1995 through 2015: 94), then I have two massive questions:

  1. Why was Iowa State averaging 56,519 fans in Paul Rhodes' final season while Illinois was averaging 41,342 that same year (Beckman/Cubit)? These were two programs who had basically identical records the previous 20 years. What put us that far behind Iowa State? Let me give you those numbers again. 3-9 Iowa State coming off a 2-10 season draws 56,519 and 5-7 Illinois coming off a bowl games draws 41,342. Can someone make sense of that? Two programs coming off 20 years of losing, two fanbases screaming "fire the coach", and the school from the small state out-draws the school from the big state.
  2. Why did Iowa State see a huge jump from year one to year two after Matt Campbell went 3-9 and won two Big 12 games but Illinois isn't (yet) seeing a huge bump after Bret Bielema went 5-7 and won four Big Ten games? Even if we have a similar season to Campbell's second year (7-5), I can't see any way we're close to their attendance numbers at the end of the year. I talk to a lot of fans. Everyone seems excited. Why is that excitement not translating to ticket sales? It happened at Iowa State when the fans got excited (after a freaking 3-9 season). It happened at Rutgers last year (after a 3-6 season). Will it happen at Illinois?

I'll be honest - this is what I always feared. It's why I was took all those bruises on message boards and on Twitter the last 20 years. If the "I'm angry about these losses and will punish my school as a result" crowd wins, we're never winning again. A coach will arrive, win, not get any support, and leave. You called me a merryman and you called me a Lovie defender and you called me "part of the problem when I lower the bar like this" but this has been my fear all along. That "improve the product and the fans will return" is a lie. That these fans are secretly enjoying the fact that removing their butt to punish the school has worked.

I need to wrap this up before I start getting angry again. It all boils down to this:

This staff is focused on Illinois. They've said this since day one. Their message has been consistent: come out and support us and send us your sons. When I hear "come out and support us", I'm ready to Paul Revere around the state playing Illinois Loyalty on a kazoo (an act certain to get the fans to flock to Memorial Stadium).

But that's just how I feel. I'm Excited Train Guy, remember? Long-time readers (you have to go back 10 years with me) will remember Excited Train Guy. When heading to Camp Rantoul in 2012, I linked this video in an article. If you want to know how I feel when I pull up to an Illinois football practice, it's this:

(Just replace "Oh no it's a BL-2 too!!" with "Oh my God Deuce Spann is at wide receiver!" This is SPECIAL.)

I know that I'm strange. People don't just quit their jobs and move to Champaign to be an Illini groupie. But I've found my "why I'm here" and, like Train Guy, I could do it every day and not get bored of it. So please forgive me if I come off too "everyone listen to me - I'm going to tell you what to do" but I just can't help myself. A call has been put out to get Illinois players in Champaign and to get Illinois butts in seats.

Somebody get me a kazoo and a horse.


I have one more thing to share. An epilogue, if you will.

As with most things, I feel it's hollow to ask you to do something I wouldn't do myself. So I'm now a season ticket holder again. Yes, I can still get in for free with my press pass. But IlliniBoard bought two season tickets this year.

Want to see them? Here's my two seats:

And here's my view:

I don't think I'll be in the seats all the time. Honestly, I don't know what I'm going to do. I need to "work" during games, and it's much easier to do that with a desk in front of me up in the press box. (And wifi.) (And warmth for my typing fingers.) Maybe I'll spend half my time in the pressbox and half my time in my seats. Maybe 90-10. Maybe 10-90. No idea yet.

But I also needed a permanent place to go. There's no cheering in the pressbox, and sometimes I need to cheer (or pace). I usually do that down in the west balcony, so now I've set up a permanent spot to go in the west balcony. I'll be easy to spot. The guy sitting in two seats up against the bricks of the northwest stair tower? The only two seats on the north side of the aisle? That's me.

See all those other seats in the second picture? That's you.

Join me, will you?

Comments

Efrem on July 21, 2022 @ 03:13 PM

I live 2,003 miles from Memorial Stadium and I have season tickets that I've almost never used.

Almost everyone can buy a couple seats if I can

jpbrown on July 22, 2022 @ 06:46 AM

This is awesome.

andy on July 21, 2022 @ 03:29 PM

Hi Robert – The most important reason for low attendance at football games is apathy rather than anger. Illini Nation’s interest in football has waned and waned over the years for a lot of reasons. The decisions made by the Athletic Department (pre-Josh Whitman) around the football program have been a kid hitting a pinata at a birthday party. It hits once in a while, and every so often one of those hits drops a big load of candy (bowl game). There hasn’t been any sense of a sustained plan.
While it didn’t work out like we all hoped, I thought the gamble on Lovie was worth taking at the time. Then a move was made to bring in Bielema and crew. It feels like there’s renewed momentum, but when the embers of the fire have burned so low, it’s going to take more wind to get them to ignite. I don’t think it’s going to take 5-8 years, but it’s going to take more than one 5-7 season. One longer term concern I have is demographics. The last sustained success Illini football had was the 80’s into the early 90’s (1992 grad here). Those were fun times to be a fan. Those fans are also getting old. This is probably my Dad’ s last year as a season ticket holder, it’s a long round trip from the Quad Cities and he’s 75. If we don’t activate some new fans soon it’s going to be that much harder to build.
All that being said I do think that there’s good momentum and that Josh Whitman has a plan. The success of the basketball program can help lift overall interest to a degree. Now it’s up to Bielema to build a program that can be bowl competitive more often than not. We’ll see what happens.

Tolkien73 on July 21, 2022 @ 03:30 PM

Hey, Robert. I'll be waving to you from my season ticket on the south 15 east side. Second year in a row with season tickets.

BELIEVE

ktcesw on July 21, 2022 @ 03:34 PM

Even when we were averaging in the mid 60 thousands in the mid 70s (before the Moeller years), recruiters used our attendance and capacity figures against us. You are making excellent points! When one thinks of playing in front of 80 to 100,000+ fans as opposed to 30,000, it makes a huge impact!

mark.loula@gmail.com on July 21, 2022 @ 04:36 PM

I got season tickets for the first time last year and renewed. I think the I-fund 4 pack - 4 seats and a parking pass for ~$400 - is a great deal. We had a lot of fun last year and the home games look even better this year. Virginia, Iowa, Minnesota, MSU, Purdue all look like good games.

Nabor568 on July 21, 2022 @ 05:21 PM

I don’t know….looking at going down for the opener against Wyoming and there’s a lot of ‘Unavailable’ greyed out seats. The only really big blogs of green are in the upper deck and only a few blocks of 4 midfield. I’m a little surprised that there more ‘Season Opener tickets going fast!! tweets……

IlliniA.J. on July 21, 2022 @ 05:26 PM

This inspired me. Just bought the i-fund four-pack. Currently live 672 miles away, but have plenty of family and friends in STL to give tickets to. And I'll see you on Oct 8 for Iowa.

reykjavik2020 on July 21, 2022 @ 05:46 PM

Robert, you failed on the headline, I'm sorry to say. If you use BIG in this font as the Big Ten logo, your headline is "I Like BIG Butts and I Cannot Lie."

sschwaeber25 on July 21, 2022 @ 05:53 PM

The thing that scares me so much is the starting point. Maybe it's b/c my Psych degree from U of I taught me behaviors are hard to change.

Nebraska, Iowa? Of course they're going. They've always gone. It's what they do. Why wouldn't they go?

Illinois? We don't really go to games, we've never been good, we've never had a reason to (I am not part of this "we", I'll lose sleep leading up to Wyoming).

It scares me knowing how hard it is to get people to do something they don't normally do, and maybe not having a great reason for them to do it

wesd2005 on July 21, 2022 @ 05:56 PM

I'll be in my seats in section 207 for every game. I've had season tickets since freshman year (2001) and rarely miss.

I think the problem goes deeper and it's related to something you brought up in one of the basketball podcasts. People in this state just aren't fans of the school the way you see in a lot of other states. I was a fan growing up and have been following this team religiously since I was 11, but that's rare. So many of our students just never get into the team. Basketball does OK because there's at least some buzz around the rest of the state, but football hasn't been relevant enough since the Mackovic years to get people hooked.

Nick-Chainsaw-Smith on July 21, 2022 @ 06:29 PM

I got an email this week from the Ticket Office informing me that additional seats near our season tickets were available if we wanted to purchase them... Tells you all you need to know about dwindling attendance when they have to try to sell additional tickets to season ticket holders...

IlliniBobLoblaw on July 21, 2022 @ 09:06 PM

Robert, I was on the fence, but this inspired me to pull the trigger on the FamILLy 4-pack.

Ellisrt1031 on July 21, 2022 @ 09:21 PM

I have bought one and sometimes two of my college buddies West Balcony tickets since around 2004 and attended nearly all of the games each season. Attended 1 or 2 games a year since 1975. As I toss around this season, I am starting to fade. I think Bielema was a good hire but quarterback recruiting, both hs and transfer, clouds my outlook. We can't win on defense and running game alone. If we can't throw for 200 to 250 yards a game, it will be extremely hard to beat good teams. Our quarterback play, pass blocking, and offensive passing scheme has been atrocious for a long, long time. But you are sitting in the West Balcony, so that is interesting. Not sarcasm.

IlliniBobLoblaw on July 22, 2022 @ 02:32 PM

But you are sitting in the West Balcony, so that is interesting. Not sarcasm.

I don't get why it's interesting or why it might sound like sarcasm, but it's easy access to and from the press box. Makes sense.

Ellisrt1031 on July 22, 2022 @ 03:43 PM

Interesting in that I can stop by and say I enjoy his work. Ok by you?

orangeandblue on July 21, 2022 @ 09:49 PM

I enjoy the games program warts and all. I’m an occasional season ticket holder. I can’t the next few years because my kids’ XC meets conflict. But the problem I have with buying season tix is one of economics. It’s cheaper not to buy tix. So many games I can get tix either free because people just don’t want to use the ones they bought or I can buy them on StubHub for $10. There is just not enough demand for even the tickets that are purchased.

timj83 on July 21, 2022 @ 09:56 PM

If Brett can give us two bowl seasons in a row with corresponding jump in recruiting then we'll see our jump. Everytime we have the big breakthrough opportunity during last # of seasons its led to a big letdown and instant deflation of excitement.

BriCrozier on July 21, 2022 @ 11:48 PM

Are there things that could be done to improve attendance at the margins? Of course. Cut ticket prices for students, University staff and recent University graduates. Maybe cut the parking lot fees as well. Perhaps give out 4 free men's basketball tickets each to 50 random fans who attend football games. But the larger issue is this: It is going to take three, maybe even four, years of improvement for the casual fans to really come back, mostly because they simply have had the rug pulled out from under them one too many times. I don't think it is fair, but it is what it is. If the Illini, somehow and someway, can go 5-7 or better this year (Remember Vegas has Illinois at 4.5 wins, so 5-7 would actually be above expectations), then make a bowl in '23 and '24 with a win or two against either Iowa or Wisconsin, attendance will be on an upswing when 2025 rolls around.

iluvrt on July 22, 2022 @ 12:01 AM

I bought season tickets for 2021, first time since UI student. A 3.5 hour drive means many went unused. My grandson and wife enjoyed the Nebraska win. I attended Rutgers and Wisconsin games - Not good. I did not renew after the super seniors went 5-7.

ClassOfDeeDeronJames on July 22, 2022 @ 12:31 AM

Strangely, butts in seats may rely on someone who has only influenced one Illini game in his life so far... Barry Lunney Jr. Now he is on our side. If we can get a competitive team together that has competent and dare I say entertaining offense, people will come.

IlliniOrphan on July 22, 2022 @ 12:41 AM

I'm a dumbass. I buy them every year and always look forward to it. Section 224, come say hi (anyone) ??

IllinifaninGopherland on July 22, 2022 @ 02:51 AM

I've been to about 20 Iowa State games over the last 10 years. The fan experience is just better there. I still make at least one game in Champaign every year also, but Ames really caters to the students and community in ways that we don't.

IlliniJoe81 on July 22, 2022 @ 03:22 AM

I move heaven and Earth to go to an Illini basketball game. We always lose in heartbreaking fashion. Like I’m cursed. I don’t care I love these guys and will keep going.

I’m an apathetic football fan. I just started watching the games again last year. Long way to go to “butt in the seats.” BB needs to make me envy the crowd I see on TV.

I liked the 5-7 but that was with the most veteran team in the history of football (maybe not but that was the vibe here.)

I thought they all graduated.

My brother asked me what to expect this year. I gave a positive reply. Maybe he’ll buy a ticket or two when he’s in Illinois.

I know we got some transfers and some in-state freshman but it’s not a hypeable class.

Basically we are selling a system that will generate more rushing yards and grind teams into submission. Maybe some basic competence that we punted away twice last year.

This isn’t Ayo and Kofi and Skyy.

We’re Illini-curious football fans right now. We’re watching and learning. You are way way ahead of us on the curve. We do want to buy in. Win some games in September and look competent and the Big Ten games will sell if people think they might see a conference win.

There is a little smoke but the fire isn’t lit yet. If it doesn’t blow out in the next puff of wind then it might light up the stadium with orange.

ktcesw on July 22, 2022 @ 12:41 PM

Very well said!

tgb on July 22, 2022 @ 03:58 AM

Great analogy. Season ticket holder for 17 years and a 340 mile round trip day. I have never apologized to my kids for taking them to the games and 70% of the time losing. They will root and scream for the team know matter what. Guess what? they're in their 30's and 40's. I read the Illinois Loyalty blog everyday, and it's been taken over by a bunch of social media idiots. I'm sure tthat is not helping season tickets sales. Good luck with that mess.

Altgeld88 on July 22, 2022 @ 01:17 PM

Because no one else raised it, I will. I have at home on my PC a two-page spread aerial photo clipped from a PDF of the 1980 Illio yearbook. It shows a panoramic view from Kirby Ave to Peabody Drive spanning Memorial Stadium during a September 1979 Saturday home game, during Moeller's final season, across the pool at IMPE (now the ARC.) There are perhaps 4x the number of people sitting in the stadium than around and in the pool at IMPE (I exaggerate, but the emptiness of the stadium is truly shocking, even by current standards.)

How did we go from that, so quickly, to serial sold-out seasons in the early '80s under Mike White? The slush fund scandal in the mid-'60s kneecapped the football program, and even Blackman didn't bring it back in the '70s. Many possibilities exist comparing today's sitch with 1980. So much more televised college football. Weekend entertainment options galore. A wealthier population that can travel (and not to football games.) The neccessity of two-income families pressed for time on weekends. Much more expensive tickets (but are they, really, in inflation-adjusted terms?) It goes on and on.

We live in a much different time today, of course. I can't help thinking, however, that the product on the field suddenly changed in quality in 1980 (from 2-8-1 in Moeller's final '79 season, surpassed only by woeful NW's 1-10 season, to 7-4 in 1981 and tied for 2nd in the BT.) A flood of junior college transfer talent (mostly from CA) changed the program dramatically.

We need that sort of swift change, sans the shadiness that doomed White, to wake people up. It's really that simple. Appealing to school pride or loyalty isn't going to cut it, IMO.

Easy for me to say, of course, living 700 miles from Champaign as I do. I fervently hope that BB turns this around. He needs to figure out how to go to war with the army he has, however, and win with with those guys, which will attract greater talent. Alvarez figured out how to do it in Madison in 1990 (from 2-9 in 1989 prior to his arrival to BT champs in 1993.)

Sweetchuck13 on July 22, 2022 @ 02:06 PM

Great article Robert. And congratulations on once again buying season tickets. We sit in the same section, so I'll look forward to spotting you occasionally when you need your fan hat on. I can't recommend the Family 4-pack highly enough for anyone that's interested - even if you only make 2 games and give the rest away, it's worth it!

And on the broader topic of fan attendance, I think you make a good point about momentum, but historically in the last 25 years or so (perhaps due to the rug being pulled out so many times), it feels like Illini fans buy tickets more based on the prior year than any expectations. Even our best seasons haven't been the most attended games. Think about 2007 for example - both 2008 and 2009 had higher attendance. And then attendance dropped from 2009 to 2010, because 2009 was so disappointing even though 2010 was a good year. Similarly, 2000 was higher than 1999, and 2002 was higher than 2001.

So my point is, I think we're going to have to have at least a winning season for a noticeable increase in ticket sales. I don't think most Illini fans will buy tickets based on momentum these days. And then the hardest part - actually following it up to retain those increased tickets.

Domillini87 on July 22, 2022 @ 02:42 PM

Our season tickets are some of the cheapest in the entire country. Hell I paid more for my son's high school season ticket in MS then I did for my Illini one last year.

I think we need to have more of a grassroots effort. Get the ones who are passionate about Illini football like us here selling the tickets for them. For example I would volunteer to be in grocery stores, hardware stores, in front of gas stations like the girl scouts with their cookies. For every 10 season tickets I sell I get 1 one free.

Maybe you could run with that idea and make it school or scouts fundraiser to help get Butts in the seats.

Get a few exclusive Amtrak gameday route that runs from Chicago or St. Louis or Springfield to Champaign. Bring back the Gameday Buses to run the route from the station to the stadium.

I just feel like the school doesn't tap into their resource of passionate fans enough.

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on July 22, 2022 @ 03:25 PM

This will be unpopular with some, but the Athletic department instituting a "show your papers or your negative test" mandate HALFWAY THROUGH THE HOOPS SEASON, 6 MONTHS AFTER BASKETBALL SEASON TICKETS HAD BEEN BOUGHT AND PAID FOR, DURING A NATIONWIDE TEST SHORTAGE allows me to say I hope they reap what they sow. At best its bad faith bargaining, at worst its a punitive act against people who didn't think or believe as they did.

Now before you go all "follow the rules" on me, I will remind you there WAS, in fact, a mask mandate for fans at all b1G arenas last year, and I will gladly go back and watch the broadcasts with you to see the compliance rate and enforcement.

Also, don't forget that each and every ticket the University sells states on the back that they cannot be re-sold without express consent of the University.

Oh also, first row of the North half of the West Balcony is and has always been the best place to catch a game. Ill see you from 231.

I once almost bought the last two tickets in first row of the main stands in the same corner in 2000, just so Bill Lemonnier would have to pretend not to hear me every time upon entering and exiting the field. But figured Id get moved anyway lol.

MIlliniB on July 22, 2022 @ 04:18 PM

I agree with you. When you venture into hot button or political issues, you risk alienating a portion of the fanbase. I'm not sure why the athletic department has decided to do so.

Robert referenced the Chief. Although I am a Chief supporter, it's not enough to keep me from attending games. However, you have to know you are going to lose fans by taking away what many saw as the face of Illini athletics. These decisions have consequences.

Hopefully Bielema can build on last year's momentum and this can end up being a moot point.

MuckFichigan92 on July 23, 2022 @ 07:59 AM

JW’s biggest accomplishment is resigning BU. Besides that, it has been eliminating the “Indian” song. The university’s anti-whiteism and support of domestic terrorism is off-putting. Attack your customers and get woke, go broke. Club MS is open for non-repeat business!

OrangeCardinal on July 22, 2022 @ 03:59 PM

So many fans are in the Chicagoland area, just waiting for a reason to choose Champaign on Saturday vs kids sports and all the other things one can do on a Saturday. It is a full day commitment. I bought the family 4-pack this year. At that price I will come to at least two games.

Chief4ever on July 23, 2022 @ 04:17 AM

THIS. The No Chief no check, vaccine card, price of tickets, etc… the fanbase has been totally alienated. My brother and 30 people tailgate every game. Maybe 6 actually go in. I can get tix for $10 or less every game. Many people I know intentionally do not buy season tix because we are one of the few universities that doesn’t care at all about the fanbase. Long time donors, season ticket holders. Butts. In. Seats. Should be the priority.

Chief4ever on July 23, 2022 @ 04:28 AM

That is was supposed to be a reply to MilliniB. Win, you’ll get more, but it’s a long road to get fans back in the stadium. My boys love it, but are always a bit disappointed at the apathy around them. Chief is a bigger deal then the usual discussion. We lost our identify. Our pride. The chance to be a learning opportunity for native Americans while retaining a connection to history.

The Olaf Rules on July 22, 2022 @ 05:59 PM

The butts won’t come until the wins do.

Altenberger with cheese on July 22, 2022 @ 08:42 PM

Part of the problem is also that most our most memorable wins -- even in the 1990's -- when they come, come on the road. At tOSU in '94 and '07, at Mich in '93 and '99. When we get hyped for a big game at home, we lose -- Mich and PSU '94, Mich '95 and 2000. The Wiscy win in '19 was magical but no one was there. Had we won that stupid NC game in Lovie's first year it could have made a surprising difference. Bottom line, next game we get a good crowd, we absolutely must win.

SectionII on July 23, 2022 @ 01:24 AM

We have an aging fan base and a generally apathetic student body (besides the Krush) regarding sports. The fans that bought season tickets and packed the stadium 70,000 strong in the Mike White era are now in their 70s and 80s. Those fans have tired of driving 2-4 hours to Campus for 11am kickoffs and driving home late in the dark after late afternoon and evening start times. Many of children of those fans who grew up in that era have left the state for jobs…that’s the age group that should be the core of our season ticket holders. My guess is that the number of alums living within 2-4 hours of Campus excluding Chicago has decreased significantly in the last 20-30 years.

And as to future…..When I drive around my town about 100 miles west of campus I see yard signs for recent high school grads that they are headed to Mizzou or SIU-E. I don’t see any Illini signs.

BamaIllini on July 23, 2022 @ 05:40 PM

Untrue. We are in our 50s and 60s, but otherwise the point is well made.

Between the team not being good, and alienating the students it has been a disaster. Whoever had the idea to put the students in the endzone can take responsibility for a large portion of the credit for alienating students and not creating new fans.

At ND, freshman are in endzone but seniors are between the 30-50. At Auburn, clubs, greek houses, get better seats based on loyalty points (you get points based on attending various events like non-revenue sports and hours of service). But at Illinois everyone is in the endzone. Students would rather drink in bars and never catch the fever.

Ill33ini on July 23, 2022 @ 09:33 PM

Start with an easy fix: Allow fraternity and sorority Football Block to set up tents at the game again. Even the non-fans went when i was in school, because they were already there for Football Block!

steveinseattle on July 27, 2022 @ 05:47 AM

This. Butts in seats start with the students giving a rip and enjoying the experience.

IlliniJedi on July 27, 2022 @ 12:22 AM

I watch every game and will attend the away games the Illini play at the Rose Bowl or Coliseum. It is cost prohibitive to be a season ticket holder when my butt can't be in a seat. Speaking for when I was still an Illinois resident, it was tough to buy in, see them go to a bowl and then not being able to use the momentum to sustain sucess. I do not understand why the flagship university in the conference's most populous state can't win regularly. If we do, there will be plenty of butts in the seats.

steveinseattle on July 27, 2022 @ 05:45 AM

The product on the field is only part of the overall fan experience. Tailgreat in the 80’s rocked. The football game was just a part of the entire day’s worth of fun.

The comments above about apathy are spot on: when you go through a 30 year period of futility as we have you tend to drive away pretty much everyone except your diehards. That’s where we are right now - your 30-some thousand represents a soft floor. Those diehards are lime you and me - we went to the U of I in the 90’s and remember watching an exciting team in an absolutely ROCKING Memorial Stadium.

Restoring fan trust in the program is going to take years. It is what it is at this point.

MJC73 on July 27, 2022 @ 02:21 PM

Guess I'm part of the problem. This will be the first year without season tickets in the past 15 years. Unfortunately as my kids became older and more active it became more difficult to make it to games. (I believe I was able to make 3 games last season - none of them after Maryland September 17th.)

Made the decision to drop season tickets as I'll have one kid off to college (not at the Beloved) and the other participating in 3 different school sports this fall. Making 3 games this year seemed quite optimistic.

That said, my IFund donation continues, I have 6 tickets purchased for the Wyoming game, I'll be watching games on my phone while at a Junior High softball or basketball game (while planning to re-watch at a later time), and hopefully we'll be able to catch a few more games in person.

Excited to see where the program is headed, but just not at a stage in life where I can regularly get my butt in the bleachers.

Duce20 on July 27, 2022 @ 03:39 PM

I had the exact same seats on the East Side my Senior year of High School, me and a buddy.

Duce20 on July 27, 2022 @ 03:46 PM

Doesn't help the state sucks to live in and if you can move and aren't associated with the University in any capacity you should move.

TRC on July 27, 2022 @ 10:55 PM

Robert:

I love your passion for our beloved Illini. While I do not have season tickets, I am attending a number of games this season and am back to donating to the ifund. Give your creativity, I am SURE that you could find a great way to use those two seats to promote the site and encourage people to put butts in seats.

LongLiveTheChief98 on July 28, 2022 @ 03:08 AM

Why did/does Iowa State manage bigger crowds than Illinois? Part of the reason is simple: the number of potential sports to attend in each market. The state of Illinois has many more athletic events from which to choose vs. Iowa. With an inferior product, fans choose to pour their hard-earned money into other teams (Cubs, Sox, Bears, Hawks, Fire, etc...not to mention the St. Louis market). Outside of the Cyclones and Hawkeyes, what else really does the state of Iowa have to choose from? Same goes for schools like Nebraska. They're all in on their teams because that's all they have.

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