MORGANTOWN — While college football is the hottest thing going in sports these days, with anticipation of a playoff to crown a true champion at its highest point in years, there is one aspect of the game that is troubling officials.
Student attendance across the land is slipping significantly. It is a trend that also is being felt at West Virginia, although on a lesser level than across the land, as the Mountaineers prepare for their first home game of the season at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The Wall Street Journal recently did a survey of 50 top public colleges on the Division BCS level and found that student attendance is down 7.1 percent since 2009 and at the five power conferences the decline is less, but still significant at 5.6 percent.
WVU’s student attendance is off just 3.3 percent during the same period.
The best of the best, the survey indicates, seems to be immune to this decline, with schools sporting rich tradition and a history of national championships hitting a record total attendance level last year while the average attendance has slipped just 0.8 percent during the five-year survey period.
According to The Wall Street Journal this decline in student attendance “is a sign of soaring ticket prices, more lopsided games and fewer matchups against longtime rivals, and the proliferation of televised games that make it easier than ever for students to keep tailgating long after kickoff.”
Declining student attendance at games cuts into home field advantage that comes with an intimidating student section and also lessens the bond between the student and the school, a bond the school counts on in future years when it is looking to sell season tickets and accept donations.
West Virginia’s athletic department is well aware of the trend and taking steps to bring its students back into the games.
“This generation of college students is different than any other generation of college students,” said Matt Wells, associate athletic director for marketing. “Technology has been a much bigger part of their lives growing up and continues to be part of their lives.”
And that creates a problem never really faced before by college administrators.
“There’s probably more competition for their interest and time than ever before,” Wells noted.
There’s nothing in the text books with an answer for this, either.
“I think what we try to do to combat it is improve the overall game experience,” Wells said.
As a first step, they created a fan experience committee with people from all walks of life, including three or four students to get their input.
Nothing was off limits, from the music in the stadium to the video board to the uniforms to the price of concessions.
“The fact is everybody in the country is looking to figure out how to develop a better fan experience, and we’re no different,” athletic director Oliver Luck said forming the committee. “We did it when I was with Major League Soccer and with the NFL. Major League Baseball is doing it.”
And the students have been an important part of the discussion.
“We want to be able to engage them utilizing the available technology. Whether that is rolling out the game day app we’ve rolled out to give them the second screen experience because the student is going to be looking at his phone even when sitting in the stands,” Wells said.
“We want to give them the information that adds to their experience at the stadium.
It may not happen right away, but as we get our feet on the ground and get it worked out we’ll try to deliver more scores, more stats, new signage in the stadium to make it a better experience. We want to improve the game-day experience and help them pick coming to the stadium for football games over other available options.”
To do this they put out a new in-game app with IMG and SportsLab to enhance the game experience at the stadium or at home.
• Free live game audio.
• Real-time Instagram and Twitter feeds from the team and fans;
• The official game-day guide with key times, events and need-to-know information including stadium maps and parking to plan the day;
• Enhanced location-aware maps for fans attending both home and away games;
• Live Conference and Top 25 scores, real-time stats;
• Opt-in alerts for weather updates, pre-game events, play-by-play information and more.
WVU’s Gameday App can be found as a free download in both the Apple iTunes and Google Play stores.
WVU is putting the emphasis on the game itself rather than pushing such items as tailgating.
“We are emphasizing that they should come out and support the team. Come out and be part of something that is more than just an individual,” Wells said. “It’s fun to sit in the stands with 9,000, 10,000 or 11,000 other students pulling for your team.
“We work with the Mountaineer Maniacs and other student groups to get across that you can be part of the action. A loud student section has an impact on the game. The atmosphere has an impact on the visiting team. We want the student section to be loud and part of the game.”
WVU is taking its drop in attendance at both football and basketball games seriously, even if they are doing better with their students than the national average.
“We’re happy we’re below the average. What I think it speaks to is that we have a good corps of students who will be here week in, week out, regardless of the ebb and flow of wins and losses,” Wells said.
Coach Dana Holgorsen even opened his Tuesday afternoon media meeting offering praise to the fans – many of them students — who made the 9-hour trek to Atlanta for the Alabama opener.
“One quick reference to our fan support last week, I thought it was great,” Holgorsen said. “Coming out during pregame and going onto the field for the first time, our players were pretty fired up to see all of the people who made the trip down to Atlanta.
“It made a big difference. I thought it was great. Saturday night, we are expecting a good crowd with a lot of excitement and energy. I think we are almost out of our student tickets; they’ve been requesting them. I’m pretty fired up to go out there and play the game.”
While wins and losses and a 4-8 season certainly can ebb interest, there are other factors that affect attendance and have kept WVU from having major defections among its students.
“You can’t overlook the impact the move to the Big 12 has had,” Wells said. “If we were still in the Big East and had ups and downs record-wise we would probably be hit harder than being in the Big 12 and playing with quote-unquote bigger name opponents.”
Indeed, there has to have been more interest in seeing Oklahoma or Texas than there is seeing Connecticut or South Florida.
“And then you have to give the nod to the non-conference schedules. We had LSU come in. That’s a big game. Maryland comes in and that helps our number stay closer to what is normal.”
Wells also pointed out that the student attendance figures can be affected by the schedule around Thanksgiving.
“Typically we have a football game the Saturday Thanksgiving break begins with the dorms closing on Friday or the Saturday at the end of the break before the dorms reopen, so there are no students in town,” Wells said.
“This year we play Thursday, Nov. 20, against Kansas State, which is one day before the dorms close. There’s a chance if we get a good crowd for Kansas State. If we have kids on campus for six games rather than five that would really impact our figures.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel