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September 19, 2013

Alabama addresses student attendance at games

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Finding a ticket for a University of Alabama home football game can be a difficult proposition, but finding an empty seat only requires a look in the direction of the UA student section.

While Alabama sold 99.9 percent of its tickets for home games last season, according to data provided by the Southeastern Conference, only 83 percent of tickets sold to the general student population were used.

A total of 18,683 student tickets of an allocated 109,900 went unused over the course of seven home games, and at least 5 percent of student tickets went unused in every game, topping out at 58 percent for the Western Carolina game.

With Alabama's 2013 home opener on Saturday against Colorado State, new UA Director of Athletics Bill Battle will be keeping an eye on the student section. Battle told The Tuscaloosa News that the school is addressing the problem in several ways, including allocating tickets in the south end zone upper deck - the area of the student section with the most no-shows on a regular basis - to freshmen.

"If we can't solve the problem we may reduce the student section," Battle said. "That's not off the table, but we don't want to do it."

With the 2010 expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium to 101,821 seats, Alabama increased its student ticket allocation by 2,000 to 17,000. Of that total, 1,300 student tickets are set aside for the Million Dollar Band and student-athletes. That leaves 15,700 tickets per game issued to the general student population, and at no game last season were as many as 15,000 of those seats used.

Not only are many of those tickets going unused, many students who do use their tickets are leaving games early. The UA Student Government Association has taken up early-departures as a cause with a campaign called "Play for Four, Stay for Four" - urging students to stay for all four quarters with Alabama on a quest to win a fourth national championship in the last five years.

"We want to keep students involved not only in football, but in all sports," said Jimmy Taylor, a senior finance major from Fairhope who is SGA president. "As football is the major sport at the University of Alabama, we decided to start there.

"Our reason for doing this is not because it looks bad but because (the players) are fellow students and we feel like we should be there to support them. We should stay and support them for all four quarters."

Taylor realizes the impression of a partially empty student section is not a positive one for Alabama.

"I wouldn't say embarrassing, but it is an unfortunate fact that we're a victim of our own success in some ways," he said. "We're by far not the only university dealing with these things. We've been speaking with other universities and seeing what they are doing as well."

Taylor said the SGA has worked with UA's Office for Student Affairs to make it easier for students to transfer tickets they don't plan to use to other students, and to encourage those who do transfer tickets do so earlier in the week so they will be more likely to be used.

Battle recognizes that maintaining attendance is a broad challenge that goes beyond the student section, even at Alabama.

"Certainly there's a worry about that," he said. "Everybody that has big stadiums - probably any-sized stadiums - worries about that. From my own experience, I've enjoyed watching Alabama football from my farm (before being hired as UA's athletics director in March) on high-definition television and if the game wasn't good I could go fish or ride a four-wheeler or something.

"We need to make sure that there is a reason for our fans to come that's a better experience than watching it on television, No. 1, and No. 2 that we don't lose a generation not only of students but of young alumni who can't maybe afford to buy tickets to where they find other interests that would replace their desire to come here.

"When you have much more demand than supply of tickets it's a problem. It's a good problem, but a problem nevertheless."

Battle said Alabama has done research into the problem, and that the Southeastern Conference is also looking into it.

"I know the conference is concerned about the fan experience to the point that it is funding a study and research on ways to improve the fan experience," Battle said. "I'm anxious and interested to see the results of that."

College bowl games, too, are looking at attendance. According to data compiled by the Football Bowl Association, 14 of 33 bowls which have been in existence for at least four years have shown a growth in attendance over that span, with two remaining even and 17 trending downward. Overall, bowl game stadiums were filled to 78.9 percent of capacity for the 2011-12 bowl season.

The problem, most believe, is television. While it brings in revenue, it can also hurt attendance.

"Football is a game that broadcasts incredibly well," said Wright Waters, a Tuscaloosa resident and executive director of the bowl association. "Give the TV guys credit, they have figured out how to broadcast this game. Not only that, but the technology of the 70-inch TV, 3D, all the abilities - you can fast-forward, if you want to review a play you can do it on your TV, get up go the restroom, get your beer out of your refrigerator."

The bowl association commissioned research to look into at the future holds, and how to best cater to the live football audience.

"It's all in the smart phone," Waters said. "The first thing you've got to do is you've got to have enough Wi-Fi bandwidth in your stadium that the (attendee) can do what he wants to.

"The fan today wants to go in there with his cell phone, and you're going to be able (in the future) to take your cell phone and order concessions and have it delivered to your seat. (Fans) want to be able to take pictures of you and put it up on your (video) board, they are much more connected to the video board than the action on the field.

"All of these things, if we're going to get these people back into the building, we also have to look at price points, because the price point of staying home and watching it on TV, we're amortizing that monthly cable fee and not really looking at it as a one-game or four-game factor."

Battle, too, believes technology is the answer.

"We hope to use technology to help solve some of those problems," Battle said. "We're hoping to start the implementation this fall and we think we will add a lot of fun and interest to the fan experience, but also improve the no-shows in the student section and other places as well."

Student attendance at football games in 2012



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