Sunday, October 14, 2012

Time for the administration to do its part for Penn State football

Successfully navigating the sanction era will be easier for PSU football if the administration takes a bold, aggressive approach

You're a Penn State football fan. You want the program to succeed.

You want to make it through the post-Sandusky, NCAA sanction era as successfully as possible. You want to emerge from it stable and powerful.

Of course you do.

What will it take?

In order to remain relevant during the sanctions - no bowl games for four years, scholarship reductions, etc. -  the program must retain its vitality. It must be vibrant. It must project a positive image. It must create the right perception.

There are three keys stakeholders in making all of this happen - or not happen:

The team, the fans and the administration.

The No. 1 stakeholder - the Penn State football team - it is doing its part. Most notably coach Bill O'Brien and the senior class, primarily Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill, Matt McGloin and Michael Zordich. They have been excellent.

The No. 2 stakeholder, the fans, are doing okay so far in 2012, but there is room for improvement. (For an explanation of the essential importance of you, Penn State fan, in the grand scheme of Penn State football, click here:

That leaves No. 3, the administration.

Vast improvement needed here.

Now, you likely have some big problems with PSU leadership, notably unmitigated disgust with the Board of Trustees for its handling of everything related to the Sandusky scandal and what it has done to your school and those things you care about. Those issues have been addressed in this blog before and will be again. We all want the full truth, the real truth, not the fraud thrust upon us by Louis Freeh and the BOT. And we will not relent.

However, this post is addressing what the administration should be doing now to help lift the football program through the sanctions successfully. (As bogus as those sanctions may be.) A concerted, well-planned and proactive effort by the PSU administration to improve the image and perception of the football program, which will then enhance the vitality and vibrancy of PSU football, is in order. Immediately.

How should the administration do this? By ensuring Beaver Stadium is at maximum capacity for each PSU home game.

Since it is bleeding money, the university might think it can't afford an additional drop in football revenue. But what it really can't afford is an additional drop in football attendance.

The revenue will come back around later. Action must be taken about the attendance, now, to make sure that happens. Or else the sanctions could have a lasting, debilitating hangover.

Because nothing will hasten the demise of PSU football faster than huge swaths of empty seats in the stadium. Nothing will perpetuate the perception of the program as a withering, sanction-saddled afterthought more quickly than patches of unoccupied bleachers.

And PSU attendance is down. It has yet to crack 100,000 this season. It's the lowest since the last stadium expansion a decade ago.

How can the administration fill seats like they used to, and make them pulse with energy?

By proactively improving their accessibility.

50-Yard Lion blogger Matthew Pencek wrote an excellent, informative piece last week that touched on the recent announcement by PSU that about 11,500 seats in Beaver Stadium will have a reduced mandatory donation to the booster club in 2013. (click here for story:

It's a nice gesture, a good start, docking the donation for about 11.5K seats by $200. But it better be only a start.

As Pencek wrote, it's not exactly an "impact move'' by the administration. If Beaver Stadium holds well over 100,000, and PSU has a roughly 70,000 season ticketholder base goal, that leaves at least 50,000 a little miffed.

For those with means, an extra $200 donation isn't a factor in deciding to buy season tickets. For the rest of us, it might be. So PSU needs to do the same thing with at least another 30,000 season-ticket seats.

Money matters, and gestures resonate, too. Supply-demand might be the dominant factor, but there are other elements in play here.

The tide has turned dramatically, and the administration needs to recognize pronto that the days of waiting lists for PSU football game tickets are long gone, and stem this attendance leak before it becomes a dam break that drowns the program.

The cost of attendance can be prohibitive. Here's a rundown each time you attend a PSU football game: transportation, parking, lodging (ridiculous gouging here - the university needs to try to do something about this), food, seat license/booster donation, tickets.

It all adds up to ... ouch.

The PSU administration cutting donation requirements sets the right tone with the football supporter community. It says we're giving something back. We recognize what's transpired. We understand. We don't have our heads stuck in sand.

Which will get a few more fans in the seats more consistently. Which will keep the program vibrant and generate positive media reports extolling the surprising vitality of PSU football. Which helps O'Brien recruit more good players, who of course want to be a part of something exciting. Which helps the football program be successful. Which puts more fans in the seats and generates more money, and makes up for the $$$ loss incurred initially when donation requirements were reduced to set this whole process in motion.

(Click here to see where PSU ranked vs. its BCS conference peers a few years ago in average ticket price:

To put it in cliche format, PSU is fighting an uphill battle and needs to circle the wagons and think outside the box.

The bad economy, vast improvements in hi-def TV the past 10 years, and some despair and disillusionment about the implementation of the STEP program before 2011 (which raised donation requirements for football tickets) and in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal/fraudulent Freeh Report/Board of Trustees actions/NCAA sanctions, all have taken a big toll on the entity of PSU football and the desire of some to attend games.

2011-12 was a very bad year for PSU football.

2012-13 can be the launching point for the comeback of comebacks.

The performance of the team - the Lions are riding a 4-game winning streak - and the 94,000 to 99,000 in the seats each week this season (the crowd at the Northwestern game, while not among the biggest, was among the most enthusiastic), are proving that the players/coaches and PSU football supporters can do their part.

It's time for the administration to step up.

Cutting the cost to get inside Beaver Stadium is step one. Cutting other costs (parking? hotels?) can help, too.

Here are two other measures that could be implemented for 2013 and boost the image and perception of PSU football, and ensure more fans in Beaver Stadium.

(1) Create a PSU football gameday outreach program for local middle and high schools

A large, comprehensive, specific program for getting students from within an X?X-mile radius inside Beaver Stadium for PSU games, and providing them with a great overall experience.

Perhaps PSU already has a program like this. Great - make it much bigger and much better. Let's get thousands of kids ages 10-16 from local schools in the seats for each home game.

Make it easy and enjoyable for the kids, and for their teacher/parent chaperones. PSU would provide deeply discounted pay-one-price tickets (say, $25 a pop), and handle virtually everything, including the busing.

Give them all appropriate PSU t-shirts (white if it's a whiteout game, etc.), and vouchers for multiple hot dogs and drinks. Don't give them nosebleed seats - kids don't mind being in the end zone or corner, they just want to be closer to the action. Make sure the section is extremely well-monitored, and provide PSU student leaders/chaperones for the entire time. 

Give the buses priority access to/from the stadium. Do one other thing with them on their trip besides going to the game - perhaps take them to the Creamery, or Old Main, etc.

A large and largely student-run organization could handle almost all aspects of the "PSU Football Kids Program."

What would this accomplish? A fuller, robust, more enthusiastic stadium, goodwill in the community, strengthened bonds with the next generation of potential Penn Staters, some positive-image outcomes (PSU doing something nice for kids), possible repeat customers (dad, can you take us to the next game?), yada yada. Sandusky was about kids. This will be too, in the diametric opposite way.

The cost? A little money in the short term. Just tag it on to the tens of millions the Sandusky scandal is costing the school in legal fees, consulting fees, Louis Freeh's fraudulence fee, etc.

It will be minuscule compared to those costs and made up tenfold in the long run. And if you're not selling those seats anyway, then why not?

(2) Make the seating capacity smaller. Cut it by about 3,000, perhaps

Minus 3,000 seats, PSU still would have the second-largest capacity in the nation, well over 100,000, behind only Michigan and ahead of Tennessee and Ohio State. But that extra couple of inches allotted for each body will be greatly appreciated by everyone over age 30 who has shoehorned into the giant sardine can that is Beaver Stadium.

Talk about goodwill? It's amazing what a few inches of space will do. And the cost of rejiggering all of these seats, and of slightly adjusting tens of thousands of seat locations? Put it on the Underhill's bill. Or the Sandusky tab.

(Click here for more on PSU football attendance compared to the other big-stadium schools:

Super-cramped seating is fun when you're 20. It's not fun when you're 40. It's a deal-breaker when you're 60.

Also, that's 3,000 less seats to sell. You've just increased percentage capacity - the appearance of a bigger crowd - by almost 3 percent without one more person in the building. (Of course, someone will have to keep reminding O'Brien to say "105,000" instead of "108,000" whenever he refers to the fan count in a jam-packed Beaver Stadium, which, incidentally hasn't actually happened yet in his tenure, but could Oct 27 vs. Ohio State.)

Image and perception, vitality and vibrancy.

It's time to get to work, PSU administrative powers-that-be.

The team, and the fans, will take care of the rest.

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