By Susan Elizabeth Shepard
Alabama football has been so dominant for so long that its new defining feature is demonstrating how to ignore success. Nick Saban does so by remaining unimpressed with his own achievements, always thinking about the next move to assure future wins. On the other extreme, some Alabama fans have a problem even maintaining interest in the game, thanks to the long stretch of winning. This has manifested at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the form of an outbound trickle of fans after halftime, most obviously in a block of student seating reserved for campus groups.
Having a team that so reliably dominates opponents that fans are bored with it, as The Wall Street Journal put it in August, is a good problem to have, but still a problem. The University of Alabama's student newspaper, The Crimson White, has published around 20 stories on student attendance this calendar year. I spoke with the CW's sports editor, Marc Torrence, about his section's coverage of attendance.
"There's two problems with student attendance. One is getting them to show up, but the second is getting them to stay. The numbers have been pretty good, it was just that before Saturday, they were coming, but they weren't staying past the middle of the third quarter," Torrence said. Last year the paper requested all of the student attendance numbers from the university, and this season they are a regular feature, published after each home game.
In addition to this public tracking, Alabama's student government admonished the select student groups who receive reserved seating, giving them contracts to sign that said they'd stay for the duration of the game. When this didn't happen, Alabama's Student Government Association president Jimmy Taylor sent letters prior to Alabama-Arkansas warning them that there might be repurcussions. After Saban publicy called out Tide fans for leaving early in his press conference after the game, 20 student groups (33 of 36 of the reserved blocks are held by Greek organizations) had their seating suspended for the Tennessee game.
"Every home game people are just piling on, tweeting pictures of the student section every quarter and making jokes about students leaving early to the point where fans who aren't at the game are just like 'OK, shut up already, yes, we get it,' but then when Saban said it, it actually got people's attention," Torrence said.
Saban revealed his biggest concerns about attendance and fan participation on ESPN's College Gameday last Saturday, saying, "It's to show recruits and other people around the country that we have a really together group of people that are very supportive of our team regardless of the circumstances in the game." America's most obsessive college football coach, a man who complained about the recruiting time he lost while playing for a national championship, misses no detail that might affect the attractiveness of Tuscaloosa to potential Tide recruits. He doesn't have to sell Alabama football to Alabama fans -- he has to sell it to potential Alabama players.
"I think it was very warranted," said Torrence. "The point that Saban was trying to get across -- because he is so methodical, so meticulous that he has a purpose for everything he does -- I think he was worried about recruits who they bring in to a game. These four, five-star recruits are in Tuscaloosa, and then they see a stadium start emptying out at halftime." Last Saturday, a handful of those valuable recruits were on hand, which confirmed Saban's consideration for timing.
The second big issue that The Crimson White covers is the existence and allocation of reserved block seating. The seating, its allocation by student government, and student attendance are so contentious in part because of the strong association with the Greek system. In an attempt to make the process seem fairer, Alabama's student government hired an outside company last year to score the applications for seating, but the fact that reserved seating is allocated primarily to fraternities that often don't fill the seats or stay in them makes them the primary targets for complaints about empty sections in the stands. After the CW published an investigation of discrimination in the school's sorority system, the seating was suspended for the home opener, making last Saturday the second time seating was revoked as a disciplinary tool this year. Last fall, it was suspended for two fraternities under investigation for hazing.
"I think people feel like the people who sit in block seating are more entitled because they have reserved seats and it usually is the first student section to start emptying and they are also the last ones to arrive because they don't have to get there early" Torrence said. "But I think a lot of people think you open another can of worms if there's no block seating, period. It's mostly Greek organizations that have block seating, so they would send a couple of pledges out to save the seats and if someone tried to sit in there, there would be fights."
No one was threatened with the loss of a ticket, Torrence pointed out, just the loss of a reserved seat, a downgrade in their consumer experience. Those fans who approach football as entertainment consumers are the ones who chafed at Saban's chiding. It's the right of the ticketholder, once he's paid his money, to stay or leave if the game isn't entertaining, without punishment. Without the drama and uncertainty that makes a sporting event fun, a fan must work to maintain interest. That's why we like close victories so much and upsets even more. A team that's winning by an average of 31.5 points every week (if you adjust for the curve, the Aggies actually won that game) provides too consistent a product. The game becomes less entertaining.
For the hardcore fans, football is clearly about more than entertainment. It evokes institutional and geographical loyalties. One of the problems with student attendance is a decline in those loyalties among the student body as it diversifies.
"Alabama has a ton of out-of-state students now" Torrence said. "A lot of these people didn't grow up with Alabama football. So the only Alabama they know is 48-0 every week, beating up on whoever the next team is and it's not that interesting to them. You could stay for the end of a 48-0 win over Arkansas or you can go home and watch Florida State-Clemson, or whatever else you want to do on a Saturday night."
A good way to put tension back into a game is to have a super-intense coach who isn't afraid to put fans into timeout. If it takes chastisement to reengage Bama fans, so be it. Saban isn't where he is because he can't get people to do what he needs them to do.
I asked Torrence if it had become dull to cover games in which the outcomes were all but foretold. On Sunday, he tweeted: "BREAKING: Alabama is No. 1 in BCS standings. I'm gonna go check on the color of the grass, will have full report later."
"I guess it's boring in the sense of how do I write another [story] from a 48-10 win, but at the same time, getting a paid week to go to Miami to cover a national championship game is not boring at all," he said. Which is a good thing, since he's not likely to get a break from that particular routine this year.
* * *
Susan Elizabeth Shepard is a writer in Austin. She is also a fourth-generation University of Texas graduate.