WVU AD Shane Lyons On Student Attendance & Bridging The Generational Gap
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Among the hottest topics, the ones that make message boards explode and showcase the vast chasm between generations, is student attendance.
There are two sides, those shouting that it was different in their day, and those espousing the myriad of entertainment options now, and that, frankly, it’s easier and at times a better experience to simply watch on high-definition TV. It’s little wonder that attendance across the country declined for the sixth consecutive season last year, with FBS crowds averaging 43,106 fans, down by one percent from the 2015 season according to CBS.
While that was better than the four percent drop from 2014 to ’15, and shows a gradual slowing of the trend, the numbers remain way off of 2008’s peak of 46,565, with last season being the worst-attended year at the major collegiate level since 2000. And considering that the numbers reported to the NCAA are the announced crowd, and not those actually in the seats – we’re looking at you, Pitt – the numbers are likely more than a touch inflated.
At West Virginia, attendance numbers last year rallied from multiple stagnant seasons prior. The Mountaineers drew 403,084 total fans in 2016, up from 383,782 in ’15 and 340,117 in ’14. The per game average from 2015 to ’16 increased from 54,826 to 57,584 – a difference of 2,758. A big part of both packing Milan Puskar Stadium, and its barren look in some games, is student attendance. When all 12,500 seats are taken, the look, feel and noise level of the facility is on par with the upper echelon of college football. When it’s not, when students come late and bail early, it looks bad in person and even worse on television – which films from the opposing side and thus captures it all.
“There are so many more opportunities for entertainment for the younger generations,” WVU Director of Athletics Shane Lyons said. “There’s different things they consume their time with than the limited amount 10 or 15 years ago. Across the board, what I have seen is that there is still interest from our students, but it’s a different aspect. You look at our student involvement. They show up late, they leave early. They are multitasking a lot along the way.
“It’s something we are all looking at because we are all wondering if they are not participating, will their interest be all that great? The answer is it’s hard to project. How do we keep that interest level at its peak as opposed to numbers continuing to drop? How do we keep them there longer? How do we get them there earlier? They are still showing up, but it’s eight minutes into the first quarter and by the second quarter it’s full. Then all the sudden, at the end of the third quarter, it’s going in the opposite direction. So they are showing up, and it’ll fill up, it just takes longer.”
It’s not just students, to be sure. Check the fan base at any game, with basketball perhaps the most obvious. With the Coliseum rocking, and an opposing team taking a timeout, the place goes from raucous to restrained as thousands check texts, e-mails or take a selfie instead of cheering.
Schools have tried everything from larger video boards and more frequent in-game score updates and highlights to better entertainment and giveaways. They’ve added cell towers around venues for sufficient service. Rows of televisions line upgraded concourses and concession stands, as well as bathrooms. And still the numbers are falling, and could continue to do so as the older portions of the fan base are replaced by those for whom personal devices and technology at the fingertips are an intricate part of life.
“It’s not a West Virginia issue,” said Lyons, who came to WVU after three years as Deputy Director of Athletics at Alabama and a decade as an associate commissioner at the Atlantic Coast Conference. “We had the issues at Alabama when I was there. We talk to Athletic Directors around the nation and they have the issue. It’s a trend across the county. That’s what we talk about.
“So what options do we have to be more mobile and to capture that audience? We are looking at the I generation now. What’s that going to be over the next 10-20 years? I think everybody is trying to get their arms around it.”
West Virginia has held a feedback session over the last few offseasons, using a cross-section of the fan base to get an idea of what’s working and what isn’t. They’ve covered parking, in-game entertainment, balancing the band versus videos played over the public address system, entrance procedures, food and drink choices and more. They’ve even broken the pre- and in-game music into different sections, styles and genres for player warm-ups, the team into and big play situations.
What they’ve found – surprise, surprise – is that everyone has a different take on the ideal game day atmosphere. It’s come down to the age old adage made famous by Abe Lincoln in paraphrasing poet John Lydgate: “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But you can never please all of the people all of the time.”